This same morning dawned for the prince pregnant with no less painful presentiments,—which fact his physical state was, of course, quite enough to account for; but he was so indefinably melancholy,—his sadness could not attach itself to anything in particular, and this tormented him more than anything else. Of course certain facts stood before him, clear and painful, but his sadness went beyond all that he could remember or imagine; he realized that he was powerless to console himself unaided. Little by little he began to develop the expectation that this day something important, something decisive, was to happen to him.
His attack of yesterday had been a slight one. Excepting some little heaviness in the head and pain in the limbs, he did not feel any particular effects. His brain worked all right, though his soul was heavy within him.
He rose late, and immediately upon waking remembered all about the previous evening; he also remembered, though not quite so clearly, how, half an hour after his fit, he had been carried home.
He soon heard that a messenger from the Epanchins’ had already been to inquire after him. At half-past eleven another arrived; and this pleased him.
Vera Lebedeff was one of the first to come to see him and offer her services. No sooner did she catch sight of him than she burst into tears; but when he tried to soothe her she began to laugh. He was quite struck by the girl’s deep sympathy for him; he seized her hand and kissed it. Vera flushed crimson.
“Oh, don’t, don’t!” she exclaimed in alarm, snatching her hand away. She went hastily out of the room in a state of strange confusion.
Lebedeff also came to see the prince, in a great hurry to get away to the “deceased,” as he called General Ivolgin, who was alive still, but very ill. Colia also turned up, and begged the prince for pity’s sake to tell him all he knew about his father which had been concealed from him till now. He said he had found out nearly everything since yesterday; the poor boy was in a state of deep affliction. With all the sympathy which he could bring into play, the prince told Colia the whole story without reserve, detailing the facts as clearly as he could. The tale struck Colia like a thunderbolt. He could not speak. He listened silently, and cried softly to himself the while. The prince perceived that this was an impression which would last for the whole of the boy’s life. He made haste to explain his view of the matter, and pointed out that the old man’s approaching death was probably brought on by horror at the thought of his action; and that it was not everyone who was capable of such a feeling.
Colia’s eyes flashed as he listened.
“Gania and Varia and Ptitsin are a worthless lot! I shall not quarrel with them; but from this moment our feet shall not travel the same road. Oh, prince, I have felt much that is quite new to me since yesterday! It is a lesson for me. I shall now consider my mother as entirely my responsibility; though she may be safe enough with Varia. Still, meat and drink is not everything.”
He jumped up and hurried off, remembering suddenly that he was wanted at his father’s bedside; but before he went out of the room he inquired hastily after the prince’s health, and receiving the latter’s reply, added:
“Isn’t there something else, prince? I heard yesterday, but I have no right to talk about this… If you ever want a true friend and servant—neither you nor I are so very happy, are we?—come to me. I won’t ask you questions, though.”
He ran off and left the prince more dejected than ever.
Everyone seemed to be speaking prophetically, hinting at some misfortune or sorrow to come; they had all looked at him as though they knew something which he did not know. Lebedeff had asked questions, Colia had hinted, and Vera had shed tears. What was it?
At last, with a sigh of annoyance, he said to himself that it was nothing but his own cursed sickly suspicion. His face lighted up with joy when, at about two o’clock, he espied the Epanchins coming along to pay him a short visit, “just for a minute.” They really had only come for a minute.
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.
“Look here,” said Lizabetha Prokofievna, turning round suddenly; “we are passing his house. Whatever Aglaya may think, and in spite of anything that may happen, he is not a stranger to us; besides which, he is ill and in misfortune. I, for one, shall call in and see him. Let anyone follow me who cares to.”
Of course every one of them followed her.
The prince hastened to apologize, very properly, for yesterday’s mishap with the vase, and for the scene generally.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” replied Lizabetha; “I’m not sorry for the vase, I’m sorry for you. H’m! so you can see that there was a ‘scene,’ can you? Well, it doesn’t matter much, for everyone must realize now that it is impossible to be hard on you. Well, au revoir. I advise you to have a walk, and then go to sleep again if you can. Come in as usual, if you feel inclined; and be assured, once for all, whatever happens, and whatever may have happened, you shall always remain the friend of the family—mine, at all events. I can answer for myself.”
In response to this challenge all the others chimed in and re-echoed mamma’s sentiments.
And so they took their departure; but in this hasty and kindly designed visit there was hidden a fund of cruelty which Lizabetha Prokofievna never dreamed of. In the words “as usual,” and again in her added, “mine, at all events,” there seemed an ominous knell of some evil to come.
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.
The prince made up his mind that he would make a point of going there “as usual,” tonight, and looked feverishly at his watch.
Vera came in three minutes after the Epanchins had left. “Lef Nicolaievitch,” she said, “Aglaya Ivanovna has just given me a message for you.”
The prince trembled.
“Is it a note?”
“No, a verbal message; she had hardly time even for that. She begs you earnestly not to go out of the house for a single moment all to-day, until seven o’clock in the evening. It may have been nine; I didn’t quite hear.”
“But—but, why is this? What does it mean?”
“I don’t know at all; but she said I was to tell you particularly.”
“Did she say that?”
“Not those very words. She only just had time to whisper as she went by; but by the way she looked at me I knew it was important. She looked at me in a way that made my heart stop beating.”
The prince asked a few more questions, and though he learned nothing else, he became more and more agitated.
Left alone, he lay down on the sofa, and began to think.
“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.
Half an hour after the Epanchins had gone, Hippolyte arrived, so tired that, almost unconscious, he sank into a chair, and broke into such a fit of coughing that he could not stop. He coughed till the blood came. His eyes glittered, and two red spots on his cheeks grew brighter and brighter. The prince murmured something to him, but Hippolyte only signed that he must be left alone for a while, and sat silent. At last he came to himself.
“I am off,” he said, hoarsely, and with difficulty.
“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.
“I don’t mean that I am going to leave your house,” he continued, still gasping and coughing. “On the contrary, I thought it absolutely necessary to come and see you; otherwise I should not have troubled you. I am off there, you know, and this time I believe, seriously, that I am off! It’s all over. I did not come here for sympathy, believe me. I lay down this morning at ten o’clock with the intention of not rising again before that time; but I thought it over and rose just once more in order to come here; from which you may deduce that I had some reason for wishing to come.”
“It grieves me to see you so, Hippolyte. Why didn’t you send me a message? I would have come up and saved you this trouble.”
“Well, well! Enough! You’ve pitied me, and that’s all that good manners exact. I forgot, how are you?”
“I’m all right; yesterday I was a little—”
“I know, I heard; the china vase caught it! I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I’ve come about something important. In the first place I had, the pleasure of seeing Gavrila Ardalionovitch and Aglaya Ivanovna enjoying a rendezvous on the green bench in the park. I was astonished to see what a fool a man can look. I remarked upon the fact to Aglaya Ivanovna when he had gone. I don’t think anything ever surprises you, prince!” added Hippolyte, gazing incredulously at the prince’s calm demeanour. “To be astonished by nothing is a sign, they say, of a great intellect. In my opinion it would serve equally well as a sign of great foolishness. I am not hinting about you; pardon me! I am very unfortunate today in my expressions.”
“I knew yesterday that Gavrila Ardalionovitch—” began the prince, and paused in evident confusion, though Hippolyte had shown annoyance at his betraying no surprise.
“You knew it? Come, that’s news! But no—perhaps better not tell me. And were you a witness of the meeting?”
“If you were there yourself you must have known that I was not there!”
“Oh! but you may have been sitting behind the bushes somewhere. However, I am very glad, on your account, of course. I was beginning to be afraid that Mr. Gania—might have the preference!”
“May I ask you, Hippolyte, not to talk of this subject? And not to use such expressions?”
“Especially as you know all, eh?”
“You are wrong. I know scarcely anything, and Aglaya Ivanovna is aware that I know nothing. I knew nothing whatever about this meeting. You say there was a meeting. Very well; let’s leave it so—”
“Why, what do you mean? You said you knew, and now suddenly you know nothing! You say ‘very well; let’s leave it so.’ But I say, don’t be so confiding, especially as you know nothing. You are confiding simply because you know nothing. But do you know what these good people have in their minds’ eye—Gania and his sister? Perhaps you are suspicious? Well, well, I’ll drop the subject!” he added, hastily, observing the prince’s impatient gesture. “But I’ve come to you on my own business; I wish to make you a clear explanation. What a nuisance it is that one cannot die without explanations! I have made such a quantity of them already. Do you wish to hear what I have to say?”
“Speak away, I am listening.”
“Very well, but I’ll change my mind, and begin about Gania. Just fancy to begin with, if you can, that I, too, was given an appointment at the green bench today! However, I won’t deceive you; I asked for the appointment. I said I had a secret to disclose. I don’t know whether I came there too early, I think I must have; but scarcely had I sat down beside Aglaya Ivanovna than I saw Gavrila Ardalionovitch and his sister Varia coming along, arm in arm, just as though they were enjoying a morning walk together. Both of them seemed very much astonished, not to say disturbed, at seeing me; they evidently had not expected the pleasure. Aglaya Ivanovna blushed up, and was actually a little confused. I don’t know whether it was merely because I was there, or whether Gania’s beauty was too much for her! But anyway, she turned crimson, and then finished up the business in a very funny manner. She jumped up from her seat, bowed back to Gania, smiled to Varia, and suddenly observed: ‘I only came here to express my gratitude for all your kind wishes on my behalf, and to say that if I find I need your services, believe me—’ Here she bowed them away, as it were, and they both marched off again, looking very foolish. Gania evidently could not make head nor tail of the matter, and turned as red as a lobster; but Varia understood at once that they must get away as quickly as they could, so she dragged Gania away; she is a great deal cleverer than he is. As for myself, I went there to arrange a meeting to be held between Aglaya Ivanovna and Nastasia Philipovna.”
“Nastasia Philipovna!” cried the prince.
“Aha! I think you are growing less cool, my friend, and are beginning to be a trifle surprised, aren’t you? I’m glad that you are not above ordinary human feelings, for once. I’ll console you a little now, after your consternation. See what I get for serving a young and high-souled maiden! This morning I received a slap in the face from the lady!”
“A—a moral one?” asked the prince, involuntarily.
“Yes—not a physical one! I don’t suppose anyone—even a woman—would raise a hand against me now. Even Gania would hesitate! I did think at one time yesterday, that he would fly at me, though. I bet anything that I know what you are thinking of now! You are thinking: ‘Of course one can’t strike the little wretch, but one could suffocate him with a pillow, or a wet towel, when he is asleep! One ought to get rid of him somehow.’ I can see in your face that you are thinking that at this very second.”
“I never thought of such a thing for a moment,” said the prince, with disgust.
“I don’t know—I dreamed last night that I was being suffocated with a wet cloth by—somebody. I’ll tell you who it was—Rogojin! What do you think, can a man be suffocated with a wet cloth?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ve heard so. Well, we’ll leave that question just now. Why am I a scandal-monger? Why did she call me a scandal-monger? And mind, after she had heard every word I had to tell her, and had asked all sorts of questions besides—but such is the way of women. For her sake I entered into relations with Rogojin—an interesting man! At her request I arranged a personal interview between herself and Nastasia Philipovna. Could she have been angry because I hinted that she was enjoying Nastasia Philipovna’s ‘leavings’? Why, I have been impressing it upon her all this while for her own good. Two letters have I written her in that strain, and I began straight off today about its being humiliating for her. Besides, the word ‘leavings’ is not my invention. At all events, they all used it at Gania’s, and she used it herself. So why am I a scandal-monger? I see—I see you are tremendously amused, at this moment! Probably you are laughing at me and fitting those silly lines to my case—
“‘Maybe sad Love upon his setting smiles, And with vain hopes his farewell hour beguiles.’
“Ha, ha, ha!”
Hippolyte suddenly burst into a fit of hysterical laughter, which turned into a choking cough.
“Observe,” he gasped, through his coughing, “what a fellow Gania is! He talks about Nastasia’s ‘leavings,’ but what does he want to take himself?”
The prince sat silent for a long while. His mind was filled with dread and horror.
“You spoke of a meeting with Nastasia Philipovna,” he said at last, in a low voice.
“Oh—come! Surely you must know that there is to be a meeting today between Nastasia and Aglaya Ivanovna, and that Nastasia has been sent for on purpose, through Rogojin, from St. Petersburg? It has been brought about by invitation of Aglaya Ivanovna and my own efforts, and Nastasia is at this moment with Rogojin, not far from here—at Dana Alexeyevna’s—that curious friend of hers; and to this questionable house Aglaya Ivanovna is to proceed for a friendly chat with Nastasia Philipovna, and for the settlement of several problems. They are going to play at arithmetic—didn’t you know about it? Word of honour?”
“It’s a most improbable story.”
“Oh, very well! if it’s improbable—it is—that’s all! And yet—where should you have heard it? Though I must say, if a fly crosses the room it’s known all over the place here. However, I’ve warned you, and you may be grateful to me. Well—au revoir—probably in the next world! One more thing—don’t think that I am telling you all this for your sake. Oh, dear, no! Do you know that I dedicated my confession to Aglaya Ivanovna? I did though, and how she took it, ha, ha! Oh, no! I am not acting from any high, exalted motives. But though I may have behaved like a cad to you, I have not done her any harm. I don’t apologize for my words about ‘leavings’ and all that. I am atoning for that, you see, by telling you the place and time of the meeting. Goodbye! You had better take your measures, if you are worthy the name of a man! The meeting is fixed for this evening—that’s certain.”
Hippolyte walked towards the door, but the prince called him back and he stopped.
“Then you think Aglaya Ivanovna herself intends to go to Nastasia Philipovna’s tonight?” he asked, and bright hectic spots came out on his cheeks and forehead.
“I don’t know absolutely for certain; but in all probability it is so,” replied Hippolyte, looking round. “Nastasia would hardly go to her; and they can’t meet at Gania’s, with a man nearly dead in the house.”
“It’s impossible, for that very reason,” said the prince. “How would she get out if she wished to? You don’t know the habits of that house—she could not get away alone to Nastasia Philipovna’s! It’s all nonsense!”
“Look here, my dear prince, no one jumps out of the window if they can help it; but when there’s a fire, the dandiest gentleman or the finest lady in the world will skip out! When the moment comes, and there’s nothing else to be done—our young lady will go to Nastasia Philipovna’s! Don’t they let the young ladies out of the house alone, then?”
“I didn’t mean that exactly.”
“If you didn’t mean that, then she has only to go down the steps and walk off, and she need never come back unless she chooses: Ships are burned behind one sometimes, and one doesn’t care to return whence one came. Life need not consist only of lunches, and dinners, and Prince S’s. It strikes me you take Aglaya Ivanovna for some conventional boarding-school girl. I said so to her, and she quite agreed with me. Wait till seven or eight o’clock. In your place I would send someone there to keep watch, so as to seize the exact moment when she steps out of the house. Send Colia. He’ll play the spy with pleasure—for you at least. Ha, ha, ha!”
Hippolyte went out.
There was no reason for the prince to set anyone to watch, even if he had been capable of such a thing. Aglaya’s command that he should stay at home all day seemed almost explained now. Perhaps she meant to call for him, herself, or it might be, of course, that she was anxious to make sure of his not coming there, and therefore bade him remain at home. His head whirled; the whole room seemed to be turning round. He lay down on the sofa, and closed his eyes.
One way or the other the question was to be decided at last—finally.
Oh, no, he did not think of Aglaya as a boarding-school miss, or a young lady of the conventional type! He had long since feared that she might take some such step as this. But why did she wish to see Nastasia?
He shivered all over as he lay; he was in high fever again.
No! he did not account her a child. Certain of her looks, certain of her words, of late, had filled him with apprehension. At times it had struck him that she was putting too great a restraint upon herself, and he remembered that he had been alarmed to observe this. He had tried, all these days, to drive away the heavy thoughts that oppressed him; but what was the hidden mystery of that soul? The question had long tormented him, although he implicitly trusted that soul. And now it was all to be cleared up. It was a dreadful thought. And “that woman” again! Why did he always feel as though “that woman” were fated to appear at each critical moment of his life, and tear the thread of his destiny like a bit of rotten string? That he always had felt this he was ready to swear, although he was half delirious at the moment. If he had tried to forget her, all this time, it was simply because he was afraid of her. Did he love the woman or hate her? This question he did not once ask himself today; his heart was quite pure. He knew whom he loved. He was not so much afraid of this meeting, nor of its strangeness, nor of any reasons there might be for it, unknown to himself; he was afraid of the woman herself, Nastasia Philipovna. He remembered, some days afterwards, how during all those fevered hours he had seen but her eyes, her look, had heard her voice, strange words of hers; he remembered that this was so, although he could not recollect the details of his thoughts.
He could remember that Vera brought him some dinner, and that he took it; but whether he slept after dinner, or no, he could not recollect.
He only knew that he began to distinguish things clearly from the moment when Aglaya suddenly appeared, and he jumped up from the sofa and went to meet her. It was just a quarter past seven then.
Aglaya was quite alone, and dressed, apparently hastily, in a light mantle. Her face was pale, as it had been in the morning, and her eyes were ablaze with bright but subdued fire. He had never seen that expression in her eyes before.
She gazed attentively at him.
“You are quite ready, I observe,” she said, with absolute composure, “dressed, and your hat in your hand. I see somebody has thought fit to warn you, and I know who. Hippolyte?”
“Yes, he told me,” said the prince, feeling only half alive.
“Come then. You know, I suppose, that you must escort me there? You are well enough to go out, aren’t you?”
“I am well enough; but is it really possible?—”
He broke off abruptly, and could not add another word. This was his one attempt to stop the mad child, and, after he had made it, he followed her as though he had no will of his own. Confused as his thoughts were, he was, nevertheless, capable of realizing the fact that if he did not go with her, she would go alone, and so he must go with her at all hazards. He guessed the strength of her determination; it was beyond him to check it.
They walked silently, and said scarcely a word all the way. He only noticed that she seemed to know the road very well; and once, when he thought it better to go by a certain lane, and remarked to her that it would be quieter and less public, she only said, “it’s all the same,” and went on.
When they were almost arrived at Daria Alexeyevna’s house (it was a large wooden structure of ancient date), a gorgeously-dressed lady and a young girl came out of it. Both these ladies took their seats in a carriage, which was waiting at the door, talking and laughing loudly the while, and drove away without appearing to notice the approaching couple.
No sooner had the carriage driven off than the door opened once more; and Rogojin, who had apparently been awaiting them, let them in and closed it after them.
“There is not another soul in the house now excepting our four selves,” he said aloud, looking at the prince in a strange way.
Nastasia Philipovna was waiting for them in the first room they went into. She was dressed very simply, in black.
She rose at their entrance, but did not smile or give her hand, even to the prince. Her anxious eyes were fixed upon Aglaya. Both sat down, at a little distance from one another—Aglaya on the sofa, in the corner of the room, Nastasia by the window. The prince and Rogojin remained standing, and were not invited to sit.
Muishkin glanced at Rogojin in perplexity, but the latter only smiled disagreeably, and said nothing. The silence continued for some few moments.
An ominous expression passed over Nastasia Philipovna’s face, of a sudden. It became obstinate-looking, hard, and full of hatred; but she did not take her eyes off her visitors for a moment.
Aglaya was clearly confused, but not frightened. On entering she had merely glanced momentarily at her rival, and then had sat still, with her eyes on the ground, apparently in thought. Once or twice she glanced casually round the room. A shade of disgust was visible in her expression; she looked as though she were afraid of contamination in this place.
She mechanically arranged her dress, and fidgeted uncomfortably, eventually changing her seat to the other end of the sofa. Probably she was unconscious of her own movements; but this very unconsciousness added to the offensiveness of their suggested meaning.
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.
“You know of course why I requested this meeting?” she said at last, quietly, and pausing twice in the delivery of this very short sentence.
“No—I know nothing about it,” said Nastasia, drily and abruptly.
Aglaya blushed. Perhaps it struck her as very strange and impossible that she should really be sitting here and waiting for “that woman’s” reply to her question.
At the first sound of Nastasia’s voice a shudder ran through her frame. Of course “that woman” observed and took in all this.
“You know quite well, but you are pretending to be ignorant,” said Aglaya, very low, with her eyes on the ground.
“Why should I?” asked Nastasia Philipovna, smiling slightly.
“You want to take advantage of my position, now that I am in your house,” continued Aglaya, awkwardly.
“For that position you are to blame and not I,” said Nastasia, flaring up suddenly. “I did not invite you, but you me; and to this moment I am quite ignorant as to why I am thus honoured.”
Aglaya raised her head haughtily.
“Restrain your tongue!” she said. “I did not come here to fight you with your own weapons.
“Oh! then you did come ‘to fight,’ I may conclude? Dear me!—and I thought you were cleverer—”
They looked at one another with undisguised malice. One of these women had written to the other, so lately, such letters as we have seen; and it all was dispersed at their first meeting. Yet it appeared that not one of the four persons in the room considered this in any degree strange.
The prince who, up to yesterday, would not have believed that he could even dream of such an impossible scene as this, stood and listened and looked on, and felt as though he had long foreseen it all. The most fantastic dream seemed suddenly to have been metamorphosed into the most vivid reality.
One of these women so despised the other, and so longed to express her contempt for her (perhaps she had only come for that very purpose, as Rogojin said next day), that howsoever fantastical was the other woman, howsoever afflicted her spirit and disturbed her understanding, no preconceived idea of hers could possibly stand up against that deadly feminine contempt of her rival. The prince felt sure that Nastasia would say nothing about the letters herself; but he could judge by her flashing eyes and the expression of her face what the thought of those letters must be costing her at this moment. He would have given half his life to prevent Aglaya from speaking of them. But Aglaya suddenly braced herself up, and seemed to master herself fully, all in an instant.
“You have not quite understood,” she said. “I did not come to quarrel with you, though I do not like you. I came to speak to you as… as one human being to another. I came with my mind made up as to what I had to say to you, and I shall not change my intention, although you may misunderstand me. So much the worse for you, not for myself! I wished to reply to all you have written to me and to reply personally, because I think that is the more convenient way. Listen to my reply to all your letters. I began to be sorry for Prince Lef Nicolaievitch on the very day I made his acquaintance, and when I heard—afterwards—of all that took place at your house in the evening, I was sorry for him because he was such a simple-minded man, and because he, in the simplicity of his soul, believed that he could be happy with a woman of your character. What I feared actually took place; you could not love him, you tortured him, and threw him over. You could not love him because you are too proud—no, not proud, that is an error; because you are too vain—no, not quite that either; too self-loving; you are self-loving to madness. Your letters to me are a proof of it. You could not love so simple a soul as his, and perhaps in your heart you despised him and laughed at him. All you could love was your shame and the perpetual thought that you were disgraced and insulted. If you were less shameful, or had no cause at all for shame, you would be still more unhappy than you are now.”
Aglaya brought out these thronging words with great satisfaction. They came from her lips hurriedly and impetuously, and had been prepared and thought out long ago, even before she had ever dreamed of the present meeting. She watched with eagerness the effect of her speech as shown in Nastasia’s face, which was distorted with agitation.
“You remember,” she continued, “he wrote me a letter at that time; he says you know all about that letter and that you even read it. I understand all by means of this letter, and understand it correctly. He has since confirmed it all to me—what I now say to you, word for word. After receiving his letter I waited; I guessed that you would soon come back here, because you could never do without Petersburg; you are still too young and lovely for the provinces. However, this is not my own idea,” she added, blushing dreadfully; and from this moment the colour never left her cheeks to the end of her speech. “When I next saw the prince I began to feel terribly pained and hurt on his account. Do not laugh; if you laugh you are unworthy of understanding what I say.”
“Surely you see that I am not laughing,” said Nastasia, sadly and sternly.
“However, it’s all the same to me; laugh or not, just as you please. When I asked him about you, he told me that he had long since ceased to love you, that the very recollection of you was a torture to him, but that he was sorry for you; and that when he thought of you his heart was pierced. I ought to tell you that I never in my life met a man anything like him for noble simplicity of mind and for boundless trustfulness. I guessed that anyone who liked could deceive him, and that he would immediately forgive anyone who did deceive him; and it was for this that I grew to love him—”
Aglaya paused for a moment, as though suddenly brought up in astonishment that she could have said these words, but at the same time a great pride shone in her eyes, like a defiant assertion that it would not matter to her if “this woman” laughed in her face for the admission just made.
“I have told you all now, and of course you understand what I wish of you.”
“Perhaps I do; but tell me yourself,” said Nastasia Philipovna, quietly.
Aglaya flushed up angrily.
“I wished to find out from you,” she said, firmly, “by what right you dare to meddle with his feelings for me? By what right you dared send me those letters? By what right do you continually remind both me and him that you love him, after you yourself threw him over and ran away from him in so insulting and shameful a way?”
“I never told either him or you that I loved him!” replied Nastasia Philipovna, with an effort. “And—and I did run away from him—you are right there,” she added, scarcely audibly.
“Never told either him or me?” cried Aglaya. “How about your letters? Who asked you to try to persuade me to marry him? Was not that a declaration from you? Why do you force yourself upon us in this way? I confess I thought at first that you were anxious to arouse an aversion for him in my heart by your meddling, in order that I might give him up; and it was only afterwards that I guessed the truth. You imagined that you were doing an heroic action! How could you spare any love for him, when you love your own vanity to such an extent? Why could you not simply go away from here, instead of writing me those absurd letters? Why do you not now marry that generous man who loves you, and has done you the honour of offering you his hand? It is plain enough why; if you marry Rogojin you lose your grievance; you will have nothing more to complain of. You will be receiving too much honour. Evgenie Pavlovitch was saying the other day that you had read too many poems and are too well educated for—your position; and that you live in idleness. Add to this your vanity, and, there you have reason enough—”
“And do you not live in idleness?”
Things had come to this unexpected point too quickly. Unexpected because Nastasia Philipovna, on her way to Pavlofsk, had thought and considered a good deal, and had expected something different, though perhaps not altogether good, from this interview; but Aglaya had been carried away by her own outburst, just as a rolling stone gathers impetus as it careers downhill, and could not restrain herself in the satisfaction of revenge.
It was strange, Nastasia Philipovna felt, to see Aglaya like this. She gazed at her, and could hardly believe her eyes and ears for a moment or two.
Whether she were a woman who had read too many poems, as Evgenie Pavlovitch supposed, or whether she were mad, as the prince had assured Aglaya, at all events, this was a woman who, in spite of her occasionally cynical and audacious manner, was far more refined and trustful and sensitive than appeared. There was a certain amount of romantic dreaminess and caprice in her, but with the fantastic was mingled much that was strong and deep.
The prince realized this, and great suffering expressed itself in his face.
Aglaya observed it, and trembled with anger.
“How dare you speak so to me?” she said, with a haughtiness which was quite indescribable, replying to Nastasia’s last remark.
“You must have misunderstood what I said,” said Nastasia, in some surprise.
“If you wished to preserve your good name, why did you not give up your—your ‘guardian,’ Totski, without all that theatrical posturing?” said Aglaya, suddenly a propos of nothing.
“What do you know of my position, that you dare to judge me?” cried Nastasia, quivering with rage, and growing terribly white.
“I know this much, that you did not go out to honest work, but went away with a rich man, Rogojin, in order to pose as a fallen angel. I don’t wonder that Totski was nearly driven to suicide by such a fallen angel.”
“Silence!” cried Nastasia Philipovna. “You are about as fit to understand me as the housemaid here, who bore witness against her lover in court the other day. She would understand me better than you do.”
“Probably an honest girl living by her own toil. Why do you speak of a housemaid so contemptuously?”
“I do not despise toil; I despise you when you speak of toil.”
“If you had cared to be an honest woman, you would have gone out as a laundress.”
Both had risen, and were gazing at one another with pallid faces.
“Aglaya, don’t! This is unfair,” cried the prince, deeply distressed.
Rogojin was not smiling now; he sat and listened with folded arms, and lips tight compressed.
“There, look at her,” cried Nastasia, trembling with passion. “Look at this young lady! And I imagined her an angel! Did you come to me without your governess, Aglaya Ivanovna? Oh, fie, now shall I just tell you why you came here today? Shall I tell you without any embellishments? You came because you were afraid of me!”
“Afraid of you?” asked Aglaya, beside herself with naive amazement that the other should dare talk to her like this.
“Yes, me, of course! Of course you were afraid of me, or you would not have decided to come. You cannot despise one you fear. And to think that I have actually esteemed you up to this very moment! Do you know why you are afraid of me, and what is your object now? You wished to satisfy yourself with your own eyes as to which he loves best, myself or you, because you are fearfully jealous.”
“He has told me already that he hates you,” murmured Aglaya, scarcely audibly.
“Perhaps, perhaps! I am not worthy of him, I know. But I think you are lying, all the same. He cannot hate me, and he cannot have said so. I am ready to forgive you, in consideration of your position; but I confess I thought better of you. I thought you were wiser, and more beautiful, too; I did, indeed! Well, take your treasure! See, he is gazing at you, he can’t recollect himself. Take him, but on one condition; go away at once, this instant!”
She fell back into a chair, and burst into tears. But suddenly some new expression blazed in her eyes. She stared fixedly at Aglaya, and rose from her seat.
“Or would you like me to bid him, bid him, do you hear, command him, now, at once, to throw you up, and remain mine for ever? Shall I? He will stay, and he will marry me too, and you shall trot home all alone. Shall I?—shall I say the word?” she screamed like a madwoman, scarcely believing herself that she could really pronounce such wild words.
Aglaya had made for the door in terror, but she stopped at the threshold, and listened. “Shall I turn Rogojin off? Ha! ha! you thought I would marry him for your benefit, did you? Why, I’ll call out now, if you like, in your presence, ‘Rogojin, get out!’ and say to the prince, ‘Do you remember what you promised me?’ Heavens! what a fool I have been to humiliate myself before them! Why, prince, you yourself gave me your word that you would marry me whatever happened, and would never abandon me. You said you loved me and would forgive me all, and—and resp—yes, you even said that! I only ran away from you in order to set you free, and now I don’t care to let you go again. Why does she treat me so—so shamefully? I am not a loose woman—ask Rogojin there! He’ll tell you. Will you go again now that she has insulted me, before your eyes, too; turn away from me and lead her away, arm-in-arm? May you be accursed too, for you were the only one I trusted among them all! Go away, Rogojin, I don’t want you,” she continued, blind with fury, and forcing the words out with dry lips and distorted features, evidently not believing a single word of her own tirade, but, at the same time, doing her utmost to prolong the moment of self-deception.
The outburst was so terribly violent that the prince thought it would have killed her.
“There he is!” she shrieked again, pointing to the prince and addressing Aglaya. “There he is! and if he does not approach me at once and take me and throw you over, then have him for your own—I give him up to you! I don’t want him!”
Both she and Aglaya stood and waited as though in expectation, and both looked at the prince like madwomen.
But he, perhaps, did not understand the full force of this challenge; in fact, it is certain he did not. All he could see was the poor despairing face which, as he had said to Aglaya, “had pierced his heart for ever.”
He could bear it no longer, and with a look of entreaty, mingled with reproach, he addressed Aglaya, pointing to Nastasia the while:
“How can you?” he murmured; “she is so unhappy.”
But he had no time to say another word before Aglaya’s terrible look bereft him of speech. In that look was embodied so dreadful a suffering and so deadly a hatred, that he gave a cry and flew to her; but it was too late.
She could not hold out long enough even to witness his movement in her direction. She had hidden her face in her hands, cried once “Oh, my God!” and rushed out of the room. Rogojin followed her to undo the bolts of the door and let her out into the street.
The prince made a rush after her, but he was caught and held back. The distorted, livid face of Nastasia gazed at him reproachfully, and her blue lips whispered:
“What? Would you go to her—to her?”
She fell senseless into his arms.
He raised her, carried her into the room, placed her in an arm-chair, and stood over her, stupefied. On the table stood a tumbler of water. Rogojin, who now returned, took this and sprinkled a little in her face. She opened her eyes, but for a moment she understood nothing.
Suddenly she looked around, shuddered, gave a loud cry, and threw herself in the prince’s arms.
“Mine, mine!” she cried. “Has the proud young lady gone? Ha, ha, ha!” she laughed hysterically. “And I had given him up to her! Why—why did I? Mad—mad! Get away, Rogojin! Ha, ha, ha!”
Rogojin stared intently at them; then he took his hat, and without a word, left the room.
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.