“I only see that Aglaya Ivanovna is laughing at me,” said the poor prince, sadly.“Nastasia Philipovna!” began the general, reproachfully. He was beginning to put his own interpretation on the affair.
“Perhaps you do not wish to accept my proposition?” she asked, gazing haughtily at the prince.
“They showed me out with bows and every kind of respect; they seemed quite beside themselves. I shall never forget the expression of their faces!No one replied.
The Epanchins heard about this, as well as about the episode at Nastasia Philipovna’s. It was strange, perhaps, that the facts should become so quickly, and fairly accurately, known. As far as Gania was concerned, it might have been supposed that the news had come through Varvara Ardalionovna, who had suddenly become a frequent visitor of the Epanchin girls, greatly to their mother’s surprise. But though Varvara had seen fit, for some reason, to make friends with them, it was not likely that she would have talked to them about her brother. She had plenty of pride, in spite of the fact that in thus acting she was seeking intimacy with people who had practically shown her brother the door. She and the Epanchin girls had been acquainted in childhood, although of late they had met but rarely. Even now Varvara hardly ever appeared in the drawing-room, but would slip in by a back way. Lizabetha Prokofievna, who disliked Varvara, although she had a great respect for her mother, was much annoyed by this sudden intimacy, and put it down to the general “contrariness” of her daughters, who were “always on the lookout for some new way of opposing her.” Nevertheless, Varvara continued her visits.
“I... you,” he began joyfully. “You cannot tell how I... he always spoke so enthusiastically of you, Colia here; I liked his enthusiasm. I was not corrupting him! But I must leave him, too--I wanted to leave them all--there was not one of them--not one! I wanted to be a man of action--I had a right to be. Oh! what a lot of things I wanted! Now I want nothing; I renounce all my wants; I swore to myself that I would want nothing; let them seek the truth without me! Yes, nature is full of mockery! Why”--he continued with sudden warmth--“does she create the choicest beings only to mock at them? The only human being who is recognized as perfect, when nature showed him to mankind, was given the mission to say things which have caused the shedding of so much blood that it would have drowned mankind if it had all been shed at once! Oh! it is better for me to die! I should tell some dreadful lie too; nature would so contrive it! I have corrupted nobody. I wanted to live for the happiness of all men, to find and spread the truth. I used to look out of my window at the wall of Meyer’s house, and say to myself that if I could speak for a quarter of an hour I would convince the whole world, and now for once in my life I have come into contact with... you--if not with the others! And what is the result? Nothing! The sole result is that you despise me! Therefore I must be a fool, I am useless, it is time I disappeared! And I shall leave not even a memory! Not a sound, not a trace, not a single deed! I have not spread a single truth!... Do not laugh at the fool! Forget him! Forget him forever! I beseech you, do not be so cruel as to remember! Do you know that if I were not consumptive, I would kill myself?”“Well, yes--but we call it from the Jesuits, you know; it comes to the same thing,” laughed the old fellow, delighted with the pleasant recollection.Lebedeff strained his eyes and ears to take in what the prince was saying. The latter was frowning more and more, and walking excitedly up and down, trying not to look at Lebedeff.
The prince would rather have kept this particular cross.
She could not believe her ears.
“God knows, Aglaya, that to restore her peace of mind and make her happy I would willingly give up my life. But I cannot love her, and she knows that.”
“What? What _do_ you mean? What roi de Rome?”
“Oh dear no! Why--”
“In spite of Norma’s terror she looked furious, though she trembled in all her limbs. At length she slowly bared her terrible teeth, opened her great red jaws, hesitated--took courage, and seized the beast in her mouth. It seemed to try to dart out of her jaws twice, but Norma caught at it and half swallowed it as it was escaping. The shell cracked in her teeth; and the tail and legs stuck out of her mouth and shook about in a horrible manner. Suddenly Norma gave a piteous whine; the reptile had bitten her tongue. She opened her mouth wide with the pain, and I saw the beast lying across her tongue, and out of its body, which was almost bitten in two, came a hideous white-looking substance, oozing out into Norma’s mouth; it was of the consistency of a crushed black-beetle. Just then I awoke and the prince entered the room.”“That may be! Perhaps you didn’t _come_ with the idea, but the idea is certainly there _now!_ Ha, ha! well, that’s enough! What are you upset about? Didn’t you really know it all before? You astonish me!”
“Yes, but what am I to do, Lebedeff? What steps am I to take? I am ready.”Ivan Petrovitch grunted and twisted round in his chair. General Epanchin moved nervously. The latter’s chief had started a conversation with the wife of the dignitary, and took no notice whatever of the prince, but the old lady very often glanced at him, and listened to what he was saying.Hearing these words from her husband, Lizabetha Prokofievna was driven beside herself.
“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.”
“Do you know, though,” cried the prince warmly, “you made that remark now, and everyone says the same thing, and the machine is designed with the purpose of avoiding pain, this guillotine I mean; but a thought came into my head then: what if it be a bad plan after all? You may laugh at my idea, perhaps--but I could not help its occurring to me all the same. Now with the rack and tortures and so on--you suffer terrible pain of course; but then your torture is bodily pain only (although no doubt you have plenty of that) until you die. But _here_ I should imagine the most terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at all--but the certain knowledge that in an hour,--then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now--this very _instant_--your soul must quit your body and that you will no longer be a man--and that this is certain, _certain_! That’s the point--the certainty of it. Just that instant when you place your head on the block and hear the iron grate over your head--then--that quarter of a second is the most awful of all.“Yes, I saw her, and got the said slap in the face as mentioned. She chucked the letter back to me unopened, and kicked me out of the house, morally, not physically, although not far off it.”“The impression was forcible--” the prince began.“That has been seen already,” continued Lebedeff, not deigning to notice the interruption. “Malthus was a friend of humanity, but, with ill-founded moral principles, the friend of humanity is the devourer of humanity, without mentioning his pride; for, touch the vanity of one of these numberless philanthropists, and to avenge his self-esteem, he will be ready at once to set fire to the whole globe; and to tell the truth, we are all more or less like that. I, perhaps, might be the first to set a light to the fuel, and then run away. But, again, I must repeat, that is not the question.”
“We demand, we demand, we demand, we do not beseech,” spluttered Burdovsky, red as a lobster.
“Oh, I didn’t mean in this room! I know I can’t smoke here, of course. I’d adjourn to some other room, wherever you like to show me to. You see, I’m used to smoking a good deal, and now I haven’t had a puff for three hours; however, just as you like.”
We said at the beginning of our story, that the Epanchins were liked and esteemed by their neighbours. In spite of his humble origin, Ivan Fedorovitch himself was received everywhere with respect. He deserved this, partly on account of his wealth and position, partly because, though limited, he was really a very good fellow. But a certain limitation of mind seems to be an indispensable asset, if not to all public personages, at least to all serious financiers. Added to this, his manner was modest and unassuming; he knew when to be silent, yet never allowed himself to be trampled upon. Also--and this was more important than all--he had the advantage of being under exalted patronage.
The prince took it from her hand, but gazed at her in bewilderment.
“You spoke of a meeting with Nastasia Philipovna,” he said at last, in a low voice.
“And do you know,” the prince continued, “I am amazed at your naive ways, Lebedeff! Don’t be angry with me--not only yours, everybody else’s also! You are waiting to hear something from me at this very moment with such simplicity that I declare I feel quite ashamed of myself for having nothing whatever to tell you. I swear to you solemnly, that there is nothing to tell. There! Can you take that in?” The prince laughed again.
Five years of this Petersburg life went by, and, of course, during that time a great deal happened. Totski’s position was very uncomfortable; having “funked” once, he could not totally regain his ease. He was afraid, he did not know why, but he was simply _afraid_ of Nastasia Philipovna. For the first two years or so he had suspected that she wished to marry him herself, and that only her vanity prevented her telling him so. He thought that she wanted him to approach her with a humble proposal from his own side. But to his great, and not entirely pleasurable amazement, he discovered that this was by no means the case, and that were he to offer himself he would be refused. He could not understand such a state of things, and was obliged to conclude that it was pride, the pride of an injured and imaginative woman, which had gone to such lengths that it preferred to sit and nurse its contempt and hatred in solitude rather than mount to heights of hitherto unattainable splendour. To make matters worse, she was quite impervious to mercenary considerations, and could not be bribed in any way.
About seven in the evening, soon after dinner, he arrived. At the first glance it struck the prince that he, at any rate, must know all the details of last night’s affair. Indeed, it would have been impossible for him to remain in ignorance considering the intimate relationship between him, Varvara Ardalionovna, and Ptitsin. But although he and the prince were intimate, in a sense, and although the latter had placed the Burdovsky affair in his hands--and this was not the only mark of confidence he had received--it seemed curious how many matters there were that were tacitly avoided in their conversations. Muishkin thought that Gania at times appeared to desire more cordiality and frankness. It was apparent now, when he entered, that he was convinced that the moment for breaking the ice between them had come at last.
Alexandra, who had seemed to wish to put in her word when the prince began, now sat silent, as though some sudden thought had caused her to change her mind about speaking.“Oh, of course it’s nothing but humbug!” cried Gania, a little disturbed, however. “It’s all humbug; the young merchant was pleased to indulge in a little innocent recreation! I have heard something of Rogojin!”
“Oh stop, Lebedeff!” interposed Muishkin, feeling as if he had been touched on an open wound. “That... that has nothing to do with me. I should like to know when you are going to start. The sooner the better as far as I am concerned, for I am at an hotel.”
“Mamma!” said Alexandra, shocked at her rudeness.
“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.“They are insane,” muttered Lizabetha Prokofievna. “Either they frighten one out of one’s wits, or else--”“Here you all are,” began the prince, “settling yourselves down to listen to me with so much curiosity, that if I do not satisfy you you will probably be angry with me. No, no! I’m only joking!” he added, hastily, with a smile.