“But we do mind,” said Lebedeff’s nephew vehemently. “Prince, your ‘never mind’ is an insult to us. We have nothing to hide; our actions can bear daylight. It is true that there are only a hundred roubles instead of two hundred and fifty, but it is all the same.”“Why not?”
All this occurred, of course, in one instant of time.
“I didn’t say a word, but with extreme courtesy, I may say with most refined courtesy, I reached my finger and thumb over towards the poodle, took it up delicately by the nape of the neck, and chucked it out of the window, after the cigar. The train went flying on, and the poodle’s yells were lost in the distance.”But Nastasia Philipovna had now risen and advanced to meet the prince.
There was laughter in the group around her, and Lebedeff stood before her gesticulating wildly.Varvara Ardalionovna was not like her brother. She too, had passionate desires, but they were persistent rather than impetuous. Her plans were as wise as her methods of carrying them out. No doubt she also belonged to the category of ordinary people who dream of being original, but she soon discovered that she had not a grain of true originality, and she did not let it trouble her too much. Perhaps a certain kind of pride came to her help. She made her first concession to the demands of practical life with great resolution when she consented to marry Ptitsin. However, when she married she did not say to herself, “Never mind a mean action if it leads to the end in view,” as her brother would certainly have said in such a case; it is quite probable that he may have said it when he expressed his elder-brotherly satisfaction at her decision. Far from this; Varvara Ardalionovna did not marry until she felt convinced that her future husband was unassuming, agreeable, almost cultured, and that nothing on earth would tempt him to a really dishonourable deed. As to small meannesses, such trifles did not trouble her. Indeed, who is free from them? It is absurd to expect the ideal! Besides, she knew that her marriage would provide a refuge for all her family. Seeing Gania unhappy, she was anxious to help him, in spite of their former disputes and misunderstandings. Ptitsin, in a friendly way, would press his brother-in-law to enter the army. “You know,” he said sometimes, jokingly, “you despise generals and generaldom, but you will see that ‘they’ will all end by being generals in their turn. You will see it if you live long enough!”
The prince took the first opportunity of informing the Epanchin ladies that he had intended to pay them a visit that day, if they had not themselves come this afternoon, and Lizabetha Prokofievna replied that she hoped he would still do so.
“Oh! that’s enough in all conscience! Pray for whom you choose, and the devil take them and you! We have a scholar here; you did not know that, prince?” he continued, with a sneer. “He reads all sorts of books and memoirs now.”
“And won’t you be ashamed when they tell you, afterwards, that your wife lived at Totski’s expense so many years?”
“If”--she began, looking seriously and even sadly at him--“if when I read you all that about the ‘poor knight,’ I wished to-to praise you for one thing--I also wished to show you that I knew all--and did not approve of your conduct.”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.
The wedding was fixed for eight o’clock in the evening. Nastasia Philipovna was ready at seven. From six o’clock groups of people began to gather at Nastasia’s house, at the prince’s, and at the church door, but more especially at the former place. The church began to fill at seven.
“To _read?_” cried Gania, almost at the top of his voice; “to _read_, and you read it?”
“A word as to my circumstances. When, eight months since, I became very ill, I threw up all my old connections and dropped all my old companions. As I was always a gloomy, morose sort of individual, my friends easily forgot me; of course, they would have forgotten me all the same, without that excuse. My position at home was solitary enough. Five months ago I separated myself entirely from the family, and no one dared enter my room except at stated times, to clean and tidy it, and so on, and to bring me my meals. My mother dared not disobey me; she kept the children quiet, for my sake, and beat them if they dared to make any noise and disturb me. I so often complained of them that I should think they must be very fond, indeed, of me by this time. I think I must have tormented ‘my faithful Colia’ (as I called him) a good deal too. He tormented me of late; I could see that he always bore my tempers as though he had determined to ‘spare the poor invalid.’ This annoyed me, naturally. He seemed to have taken it into his head to imitate the prince in Christian meekness! Surikoff, who lived above us, annoyed me, too. He was so miserably poor, and I used to prove to him that he had no one to blame but himself for his poverty. I used to be so angry that I think I frightened him eventually, for he stopped coming to see me. He was a most meek and humble fellow, was Surikoff. (N.B.--They say that meekness is a great power. I must ask the prince about this, for the expression is his.) But I remember one day in March, when I went up to his lodgings to see whether it was true that one of his children had been starved and frozen to death, I began to hold forth to him about his poverty being his own fault, and, in the course of my remarks, I accidentally smiled at the corpse of his child. Well, the poor wretch’s lips began to tremble, and he caught me by the shoulder, and pushed me to the door. ‘Go out,’ he said, in a whisper. I went out, of course, and I declare I _liked_ it. I liked it at the very moment when I was turned out. But his words filled me with a strange sort of feeling of disdainful pity for him whenever I thought of them--a feeling which I did not in the least desire to entertain. At the very moment of the insult (for I admit that I did insult him, though I did not mean to), this man could not lose his temper. His lips had trembled, but I swear it was not with rage. He had taken me by the arm, and said, ‘Go out,’ without the least anger. There was dignity, a great deal of dignity, about him, and it was so inconsistent with the look of him that, I assure you, it was quite comical. But there was no anger. Perhaps he merely began to despise me at that moment.“It was--about--you saw her--”Alexandra took it, and Adelaida came up, and both the girls examined the photograph. Just then Aglaya entered the room.The general wandered on in this disconnected way for a long time; it was clear that he was much disturbed by some circumstance which he could make nothing of.
“Your soup’ll be cold; do come.”
“I have come to you--now--to--”“Has she never laughed at you?”
“Then I’m not to read it?” he whispered, nervously. “Am I not to read it?” he repeated, gazing around at each face in turn. “What are you afraid of, prince?” he turned and asked the latter suddenly.
“It’s headed, ‘A Necessary Explanation,’ with the motto, ‘_Après moi le déluge!_’ Oh, deuce take it all! Surely I can never have seriously written such a silly motto as that? Look here, gentlemen, I beg to give notice that all this is very likely terrible nonsense. It is only a few ideas of mine. If you think that there is anything mysterious coming--or in a word--”
“Look here,” said the prince; he was bewildered, and his brain wandered. He seemed to be continually groping for the questions he wished to ask, and then losing them. “Listen--tell me--how did you--with a knife?--That same one?”
“Just a couple of words, prince, if you’ll excuse me. Don’t blab over _there_ about what you may see here, or in this house as to all that about Aglaya and me, you know. Things are not altogether pleasant in this establishment--devil take it all! You’ll see. At all events keep your tongue to yourself for _today_.”“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?”
“In the first place, don’t dare to suppose,” she began, “that I am going to apologize. Nonsense! You were entirely to blame.”
“Do you think yourself my master, that you try to keep me under lock and key like this?” said the prince to Lebedeff. “In the country, at least, I intend to be free, and you may make up your mind that I mean to see whom I like, and go where I please.”
Among our suburban resorts there are some which enjoy a specially high reputation for respectability and fashion; but the most careful individual is not absolutely exempt from the danger of a tile falling suddenly upon his head from his neighbour’s roof.
“Oh no! Never.”
She would have insisted on sending to Petersburg at once, for a certain great medical celebrity; but her daughters dissuaded her, though they were not willing to stay behind when she at once prepared to go and visit the invalid. Aglaya, however, suggested that it was a little unceremonious to go _en masse_ to see him.
The phrase flattered the general, touched him, and pleased him mightily. He immediately changed his tone, and started off on a long and solemn explanation. But listen as he would, the prince could make neither head nor tail of it.“Your bundle has some importance, however,” continued the clerk, when they had laughed their fill (it was observable that the subject of their mirth joined in the laughter when he saw them laughing); “for though I dare say it is not stuffed full of friedrichs d’or and louis d’or--judge from your costume and gaiters--still--if you can add to your possessions such a valuable property as a relation like Mrs. General Epanchin, then your bundle becomes a significant object at once. That is, of course, if you really are a relative of Mrs. Epanchin’s, and have not made a little error through--well, absence of mind, which is very common to human beings; or, say--through a too luxuriant fancy?”
The reading of these letters produced some such effect upon the prince. He felt, before he even opened the envelopes, that the very fact of their existence was like a nightmare. How could she ever have made up her mind to write to her? he asked himself. How could she write about that at all? And how could such a wild idea have entered her head? And yet, the strangest part of the matter was, that while he read the letters, he himself almost believed in the possibility, and even in the justification, of the idea he had thought so wild. Of course it was a mad dream, a nightmare, and yet there was something cruelly real about it. For hours he was haunted by what he had read. Several passages returned again and again to his mind, and as he brooded over them, he felt inclined to say to himself that he had foreseen and known all that was written here; it even seemed to him that he had read the whole of this some time or other, long, long ago; and all that had tormented and grieved him up to now was to be found in these old, long since read, letters.