“I have a couple of words to say to you,” he began, “and those on a very important matter; let’s go aside for a minute or two.”He took her hand and seated her on the bench; then sat down beside her and reflected.
“Who? I?--good and honest?”
There was a general stir in the room.
“It’s for you--for you! I’ve brought it you on purpose!” cried Lebedeff, excitedly. “Why, I’m yours again now, heart and hand, your slave; there was but a momentary pause in the flow of my love and esteem for you. Mea culpa, mea culpa! as the Pope of Rome says.”
“Well, when we tried it we were a party of people, like this, for instance; and somebody proposed that each of us, without leaving his place at the table, should relate something about himself. It had to be something that he really and honestly considered the very worst action he had ever committed in his life. But he was to be honest--that was the chief point! He wasn’t to be allowed to lie.”
The prince took his note. Ferdishenko rose.
“But while our young millionaire dwelt as it were in the Empyrean, something new occurred. One fine morning a man called upon him, calm and severe of aspect, distinguished, but plainly dressed. Politely, but in dignified terms, as befitted his errand, he briefly explained the motive for his visit. He was a lawyer of enlightened views; his client was a young man who had consulted him in confidence. This young man was no other than the son of P----, though he bears another name. In his youth P----, the sensualist, had seduced a young girl, poor but respectable. She was a serf, but had received a European education. Finding that a child was expected, he hastened her marriage with a man of noble character who had loved her for a long time. He helped the young couple for a time, but he was soon obliged to give up, for the high-minded husband refused to accept anything from him. Soon the careless nobleman forgot all about his former mistress and the child she had borne him; then, as we know, he died intestate. P----’s son, born after his mother’s marriage, found a true father in the generous man whose name he bore. But when he also died, the orphan was left to provide for himself, his mother now being an invalid who had lost the use of her limbs. Leaving her in a distant province, he came to the capital in search of pupils. By dint of daily toil he earned enough to enable him to follow the college courses, and at last to enter the university. But what can one earn by teaching the children of Russian merchants at ten copecks a lesson, especially with an invalid mother to keep? Even her death did not much diminish the hardships of the young man’s struggle for existence. Now this is the question: how, in the name of justice, should our scion have argued the case? Our readers will think, no doubt, that he would say to himself: ‘P---- showered benefits upon me all my life; he spent tens of thousands of roubles to educate me, to provide me with governesses, and to keep me under treatment in Switzerland. Now I am a millionaire, and P----’s son, a noble young man who is not responsible for the faults of his careless and forgetful father, is wearing himself out giving ill-paid lessons. According to justice, all that was done for me ought to have been done for him. The enormous sums spent upon me were not really mine; they came to me by an error of blind Fortune, when they ought to have gone to P----’s son. They should have gone to benefit him, not me, in whom P---- interested himself by a mere caprice, instead of doing his duty as a father. If I wished to behave nobly, justly, and with delicacy, I ought to bestow half my fortune upon the son of my benefactor; but as economy is my favourite virtue, and I know this is not a case in which the law can intervene, I will not give up half my millions. But it would be too openly vile, too flagrantly infamous, if I did not at least restore to P----’s son the tens of thousands of roubles spent in curing my idiocy. This is simply a case of conscience and of strict justice. Whatever would have become of me if P---- had not looked after my education, and had taken care of his own son instead of me?’
“I said, and I have repeated it over and over again,” shouted Burdovsky furiously, “that I did not want the money. I will not take it... why...I will not... I am going away!”
“I will, Nastasia Philipovna.”
There she stood at last, face to face with him, for the first time since their parting.
“Why?”“Ready--keep your distance, all of you!”
“Where is Nastasia Philipovna?” asked the prince, breathlessly.
“My sister again,” cried Gania, looking at her with contempt and almost hate. “Look here, mother, I have already given you my word that I shall always respect you fully and absolutely, and so shall everyone else in this house, be it who it may, who shall cross this threshold.”
“No--Aglaya--come, enough of this, you mustn’t behave like this,” said her father, in dismay.
“Wait a bit--I’ll make the bed, and you can lie down. I’ll lie down, too, and we’ll listen and watch, for I don’t know yet what I shall do... I tell you beforehand, so that you may be ready in case I--”
“Oh, make a sacrifice of yourself! That sort of thing becomes you well, you know. Why not do it? And don’t call me ‘Aglaya’; you have done it several times lately. You are bound, it is your _duty_ to ‘raise’ her; you must go off somewhere again to soothe and pacify her. Why, you love her, you know!”
He did not dare look at her, but he was conscious, to the very tips of his fingers, that she was gazing at him, perhaps angrily; and that she had probably flushed up with a look of fiery indignation in her black eyes.
But the situation was becoming rapidly critical.
“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?”Nastasia Philipovna burst out laughing and jumped up from the sofa.When Colia had finished reading, he handed the paper to the prince, and retired silently to a corner of the room, hiding his face in his hands. He was overcome by a feeling of inexpressible shame; his boyish sensitiveness was wounded beyond endurance. It seemed to him that something extraordinary, some sudden catastrophe had occurred, and that he was almost the cause of it, because he had read the article aloud.
“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.”
Gavrila Ardalionovitch was still sitting in the study, buried in a mass of papers. He looked as though he did not take his salary from the public company, whose servant he was, for a sinecure.