He seized his paper in a desperate hurry; he fidgeted with it, and tried to sort it, but for a long while his trembling hands could not collect the sheets together. “He’s either mad or delirious,” murmured Rogojin. At last he began.
“Nastasia Philipovna? Why, you don’t mean to say that she and Lihachof--” cried Rogojin, turning quite pale.“The idea that it is not worth while living for a few weeks took possession of me a month ago, when I was told that I had four weeks to live, but only partially so at that time. The idea quite overmastered me three days since, that evening at Pavlofsk. The first time that I felt really impressed with this thought was on the terrace at the prince’s, at the very moment when I had taken it into my head to make a last trial of life. I wanted to see people and trees (I believe I said so myself), I got excited, I maintained Burdovsky’s rights, ‘my neighbour!’--I dreamt that one and all would open their arms, and embrace me, that there would be an indescribable exchange of forgiveness between us all! In a word, I behaved like a fool, and then, at that very same instant, I felt my ‘last conviction.’ I ask myself now how I could have waited six months for that conviction! I knew that I had a disease that spares no one, and I really had no illusions; but the more I realized my condition, the more I clung to life; I wanted to live at any price. I confess I might well have resented that blind, deaf fate, which, with no apparent reason, seemed to have decided to crush me like a fly; but why did I not stop at resentment? Why did I begin to live, knowing that it was not worthwhile to begin? Why did I attempt to do what I knew to be an impossibility? And yet I could not even read a book to the end; I had given up reading. What is the good of reading, what is the good of learning anything, for just six months? That thought has made me throw aside a book more than once.
“Her happiness? Oh, no! I am only marrying her--well, because she wished it. It means nothing--it’s all the same. She would certainly have died. I see now that that marriage with Rogojin was an insane idea. I understand all now that I did not understand before; and, do you know, when those two stood opposite to one another, I could not bear Nastasia Philipovna’s face! You must know, Evgenie Pavlovitch, I have never told anyone before--not even Aglaya--that I cannot bear Nastasia Philipovna’s face.” (He lowered his voice mysteriously as he said this.) “You described that evening at Nastasia Philipovna’s (six months since) very accurately just now; but there is one thing which you did not mention, and of which you took no account, because you do not know. I mean her _face_--I looked at her face, you see. Even in the morning when I saw her portrait, I felt that I could not _bear_ to look at it. Now, there’s Vera Lebedeff, for instance, her eyes are quite different, you know. I’m _afraid_ of her face!” he added, with real alarm.
But Prince S. was laughing now, too, so was Evgenie Pavlovitch, so was Colia, and so was the prince himself, who caught the infection as he looked round radiantly upon the others.“What’s the matter?” asked Aglaya, in a whisper, giving his sleeve a little tug.
“It was just a minute before the execution,” began the prince, readily, carried away by the recollection and evidently forgetting everything else in a moment; “just at the instant when he stepped off the ladder on to the scaffold. He happened to look in my direction: I saw his eyes and understood all, at once--but how am I to describe it? I do so wish you or somebody else could draw it, you, if possible. I thought at the time what a picture it would make. You must imagine all that went before, of course, all--all. He had lived in the prison for some time and had not expected that the execution would take place for at least a week yet--he had counted on all the formalities and so on taking time; but it so happened that his papers had been got ready quickly. At five o’clock in the morning he was asleep--it was October, and at five in the morning it was cold and dark. The governor of the prison comes in on tip-toe and touches the sleeping man’s shoulder gently. He starts up. ‘What is it?’ he says. ‘The execution is fixed for ten o’clock.’ He was only just awake, and would not believe at first, but began to argue that his papers would not be out for a week, and so on. When he was wide awake and realized the truth, he became very silent and argued no more--so they say; but after a bit he said: ‘It comes very hard on one so suddenly’ and then he was silent again and said nothing.A strange thought passed through the prince’s brain; he gazed intently at Aglaya and smiled.Here he rose again from his chair, so that it seemed strange that he should have thought it worth while to sit down at all.
“I think you might have spared me that,” murmured the prince reproachfully, almost in a whisper.
“Comparatively to what?”
It was declared that he believed in no classes or anything else, excepting “the woman question.”
“I don’t wish to joke with you, Lef Nicolaievitch. I shall see Hippolyte myself. Tell him so. As for you, I think you are behaving very badly, because it is not right to judge a man’s soul as you are judging Hippolyte’s. You have no gentleness, but only justice--so you are unjust.”
“Give me a chair!” cried Lizabetha Prokofievna, but she seized one for herself and sat down opposite to Hippolyte. “Colia, you must go home with him,” she commanded, “and tomorrow I will come my self.”
“I should think so indeed!” cried the latter. “The court-martial came to no decision. It was a mysterious, an impossible business, one might say! Captain Larionoff, commander of the company, had died; his command was handed over to the prince for the moment. Very well. This soldier, Kolpakoff, stole some leather from one of his comrades, intending to sell it, and spent the money on drink. Well! The prince--you understand that what follows took place in the presence of the sergeant-major, and a corporal--the prince rated Kolpakoff soundly, and threatened to have him flogged. Well, Kolpakoff went back to the barracks, lay down on a camp bedstead, and in a quarter of an hour was dead: you quite understand? It was, as I said, a strange, almost impossible, affair. In due course Kolpakoff was buried; the prince wrote his report, the deceased’s name was removed from the roll. All as it should be, is it not? But exactly three months later at the inspection of the brigade, the man Kolpakoff was found in the third company of the second battalion of infantry, Novozemlianski division, just as if nothing had happened!”
The laughter became louder than ever.
Two more of Nastasia’s guests, who walked a short distance together, indulged in high moral sentiments of a similar nature.
“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.”
“Gentlemen--” began the prince.
“Oh,” cried the prince, “I have often thought that! Why, I know of a murder, for the sake of a watch. It’s in all the papers now. But if some writer had invented it, all the critics would have jumped down his throat and said the thing was too improbable for anything. And yet you read it in the paper, and you can’t help thinking that out of these strange disclosures is to be gained the full knowledge of Russian life and character. You said that well, general; it is so true,” concluded the prince, warmly, delighted to have found a refuge from the fiery blushes which had covered his face.
“Nonsense!” cried the latter. “He did not flatter me. It was I who found his appreciation flattering. I think you are a great deal more foolish than he is. He is simple, of course, but also very knowing. Just like myself.”After a time it became known that Totski had married a French marquise, and was to be carried off by her to Paris, and then to Brittany.
“I’m all right,” said Varia, in a tone that sounded as though she were all wrong.
“What do you mean? What are you convinced of?” they demanded angrily.
“No--nothing more than that. Why, they couldn’t understand him themselves; and very likely didn’t tell me all.”“Yes, it shows delicacy and intelligence on your part.”
“It’s loaded all right,” said Keller, examining the pistol, “but--”
“Won’t you come?” asked the prince in a gentle voice.
In fact, the door opened directly, and the footman informed the visitors that the family were all away.
“Come, come, Lebedeff, no sarcasm! It’s a serious--”“A great disgrace.”
“Have you quite taken up your quarters here?” asked the prince
“Did you never take your knife to Pavlofsk with you?” “No. As to the knife,” he added, “this is all I can tell you about it.” He was silent for a moment, and then said, “I took it out of the locked drawer this morning about three, for it was in the early morning all this--happened. It has been inside the book ever since--and--and--this is what is such a marvel to me, the knife only went in a couple of inches at most, just under her left breast, and there wasn’t more than half a tablespoonful of blood altogether, not more.”
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.”
The prince redoubled his attentive study of her symptoms. It was a most curious circumstance, in his opinion, that she never spoke of Rogojin. But once, about five days before the wedding, when the prince was at home, a messenger arrived begging him to come at once, as Nastasia Philipovna was very ill.
“I thought someone led me by the hand and showed me, by the light of a candle, a huge, loathsome insect, which he assured me was that very force, that very almighty, dumb, irresistible Power, and laughed at the indignation with which I received this information. In my room they always light the little lamp before my icon for the night; it gives a feeble flicker of light, but it is strong enough to see by dimly, and if you sit just under it you can even read by it. I think it was about twelve or a little past that night. I had not slept a wink, and was lying with my eyes wide open, when suddenly the door opened, and in came Rogojin.
“And he won’t go away!” cried Lebedeff. “He has installed himself here, and here he remains!”