“Oh, of course, yes; he would have come and wept out his secret on your bosom. Oh, you simpleton--you simpleton! Anyone can deceive you and take you in like a--like a,--aren’t you ashamed to trust him? Can’t you see that he humbugs you just as much as ever he pleases?”“Come, come, what does all this mean?” cried Colia beside himself at last. “What is it? What has happened to you? Why don’t you wish to come back home? Why have you gone out of your mind, like this?”
“No, no, excuse me! I’m master of this house, though I do not wish to lack respect towards you. You are master of the house too, in a way; but I can’t allow this sort of thing--”
“Listen, Mr. Terentieff,” said Ptitsin, who had bidden the prince good-night, and was now holding out his hand to Hippolyte; “I think you remark in that manuscript of yours, that you bequeath your skeleton to the Academy. Are you referring to your own skeleton--I mean, your very bones?”
“Yes, I remember too!” said Alexandra. “You quarrelled about the wounded pigeon, and Adelaida was put in the corner, and stood there with her helmet and sword and all.”Muishkin glanced at Rogojin in perplexity, but the latter only smiled disagreeably, and said nothing. The silence continued for some few moments.
The guests exchanged glances; they were annoyed and bewildered by the episode; but it was clear enough that all this had been pre-arranged and expected by Nastasia Philipovna, and that there was no use in trying to stop her now--for she was little short of insane.
The prince brought out his “copy-book sentence” in the firm belief that it would produce a good effect. He felt instinctively that some such well-sounding humbug, brought out at the proper moment, would soothe the old man’s feelings, and would be specially acceptable to such a man in such a position. At all hazards, his guest must be despatched with heart relieved and spirit comforted; that was the problem before the prince at this moment.
“What? At your house?” she asked, but without much surprise. “He was alive yesterday evening, wasn’t he? How could you sleep here after that?” she cried, growing suddenly animated.“Of course not.”
At last the prince came out of the dark, gloomy park, in which he had wandered about for hours just as yesterday. The bright night seemed to him to be lighter than ever. “It must be quite early,” he thought. (He had forgotten his watch.) There was a sound of distant music somewhere. “Ah,” he thought, “the Vauxhall! They won’t be there today, of course!” At this moment he noticed that he was close to their house; he had felt that he must gravitate to this spot eventually, and, with a beating heart, he mounted the verandah steps.
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.
“No; I shall not be ashamed of that. You did not so live by your own will.”
“Nastasia Philipovna, is this really you? You, once so refined and delicate of speech. Oh, what a tongue! What dreadful things you are saying,” cried the general, wringing his hands in real grief.
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.
“Well, I must say, I cannot understand it!” said the general, shrugging his shoulders and dropping his hands. “You remember your mother, Nina Alexandrovna, that day she came and sat here and groaned--and when I asked her what was the matter, she says, ‘Oh, it’s such a _dishonour_ to us!’ dishonour! Stuff and nonsense! I should like to know who can reproach Nastasia Philipovna, or who can say a word of any kind against her. Did she mean because Nastasia had been living with Totski? What nonsense it is! You would not let her come near your daughters, says Nina Alexandrovna. What next, I wonder? I don’t see how she can fail to--to understand--”
“I love that boy for his perception,” said Lebedeff, looking after him. “My dear prince,” he continued, “I have had a terrible misfortune, either last night or early this morning. I cannot tell the exact time.”
“Oh! yes, long ago,” continued Ivan Petrovitch, “while you were living with my cousin at Zlatoverhoff. You don’t remember me? No, I dare say you don’t; you had some malady at the time, I remember. It was so serious that I was surprised--”
Nastasia Philipovna laughed hysterically.
“Why, he didn’t die! I’ll ask him for it, if you like.”“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.”
“Mamma, it’s rather a strange order, that!” said Adelaida, who was fussing among her paints and paint-brushes at the easel. Aglaya and Alexandra had settled themselves with folded hands on a sofa, evidently meaning to be listeners. The prince felt that the general attention was concentrated upon himself.“In connection with ‘the ten,’ eh?” laughed Evgenie, as he left the room.
“Where’s your brother?”
“Oh, but it’s only the simple tale of an old soldier who saw the French enter Moscow. Some of his remarks were wonderfully interesting. Remarks of an eye-witness are always valuable, whoever he be, don’t you think so?”
“God forbid that he should share your ideas, Ivan Fedorovitch!” his wife flashed back. “Or that he should be as gross and churlish as you!”
“Pure amiable curiosity,--I assure you--desire to do a service. That’s all. Now I’m entirely yours again, your slave; hang me if you like!”
It was clear that she had been merely passing through the room from door to door, and had not had the remotest notion that she would meet anyone.“I am very glad indeed to have met you here, Colia,” said the prince. “Can you do something for me? I must see Nastasia Philipovna, and I asked Ardalion Alexandrovitch just now to take me to her house, but he has gone to sleep, as you see. Will you show me the way, for I do not know the street? I have the address, though; it is close to the Grand Theatre.”
She certainly did seem to be serious enough. She had flushed up all over and her eyes were blazing.
“I do not wish to quarrel with them about this; in some things they won’t be reasonable. I always did feel a loathing for the laws which seem to guide mamma’s conduct at times. I don’t speak of father, for he cannot be expected to be anything but what he is. Mother is a noble-minded woman, I know; you try to suggest anything mean to her, and you’ll see! But she is such a slave to these miserable creatures! I don’t mean old Bielokonski alone. She is a contemptible old thing, but she is able to twist people round her little finger, and I admire that in her, at all events! How mean it all is, and how foolish! We were always middle-class, thoroughly middle-class, people. Why should we attempt to climb into the giddy heights of the fashionable world? My sisters are all for it. It’s Prince S. they have to thank for poisoning their minds. Why are you so glad that Evgenie Pavlovitch is coming?”All the guests were known to the prince; but the curious part of the matter was that they had all arrived on the same evening, as though with one accord, although he had only himself recollected the fact that it was his birthday a few moments since.
There was a general stir in the room.“Nastasia Philipovna!” cried the prince.
“There, look at her now--Ivan Fedorovitch! Here she is--all of her! This is our _real_ Aglaya at last!” said Lizabetha Prokofievna.
“A hundred thousand,” replied the latter, almost in a whisper.“That’s me, I suppose. I’m the shameless creature!” cried Nastasia Philipovna, with amused indifference. “Dear me, and I came--like a fool, as I am--to invite them over to my house for the evening! Look how your sister treats me, Gavrila Ardalionovitch.”Meanwhile the daylight grew full and strong; and at last the prince lay down, as though overcome by despair, and laid his face against the white, motionless face of Rogojin. His tears flowed on to Rogojin’s cheek, though he was perhaps not aware of them himself.
“The question is connected with the following anecdote of past times; for I am obliged to relate a story. In our times, and in our country, which I hope you love as much as I do, for as far as I am concerned, I am ready to shed the last drop of my blood...
“Well, perhaps it was a hallucination, I don’t know,” said Parfen.
“It is not a Christian religion, in the first place,” said the latter, in extreme agitation, quite out of proportion to the necessity of the moment. “And in the second place, Roman Catholicism is, in my opinion, worse than Atheism itself. Yes--that is my opinion. Atheism only preaches a negation, but Romanism goes further; it preaches a disfigured, distorted Christ--it preaches Anti-Christ--I assure you, I swear it! This is my own personal conviction, and it has long distressed me. The Roman Catholic believes that the Church on earth cannot stand without universal temporal Power. He cries ‘non possumus!’ In my opinion the Roman Catholic religion is not a faith at all, but simply a continuation of the Roman Empire, and everything is subordinated to this idea--beginning with faith. The Pope has seized territories and an earthly throne, and has held them with the sword. And so the thing has gone on, only that to the sword they have added lying, intrigue, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, swindling;--they have played fast and loose with the most sacred and sincere feelings of men;--they have exchanged everything--everything for money, for base earthly _power!_ And is this not the teaching of Anti-Christ? How could the upshot of all this be other than Atheism? Atheism is the child of Roman Catholicism--it proceeded from these Romans themselves, though perhaps they would not believe it. It grew and fattened on hatred of its parents; it is the progeny of their lies and spiritual feebleness. Atheism! In our country it is only among the upper classes that you find unbelievers; men who have lost the root or spirit of their faith; but abroad whole masses of the people are beginning to profess unbelief--at first because of the darkness and lies by which they were surrounded; but now out of fanaticism, out of loathing for the Church and Christianity!”
“Full of love for that sweet vision, Brave and pure he took the field; With his blood he stained the letters N. P. B. upon his shield.
“Yes, and look what you have come to now!” interrupted Mrs. Epanchin. “However, I see you have not quite drunk your better feelings away. But you’ve broken your wife’s heart, sir--and instead of looking after your children, you have spent your time in public-houses and debtors’ prisons! Go away, my friend, stand in some corner and weep, and bemoan your fallen dignity, and perhaps God will forgive you yet! Go, go! I’m serious! There’s nothing so favourable for repentance as to think of the past with feelings of remorse!”“Listen, Lebedeff,” began the prince, quite overwhelmed; “_do_ act quietly--don’t make a scandal, Lebedeff, I ask you--I entreat you! No one must know--_no one_, mind! In that case only, I will help you.”
“I will explain matters to you. Five weeks ago I received a visit from Tchebaroff, your agent, Mr. Burdovsky. You have given a very flattering description of him in your article, Mr. Keller,” he continued, turning to the boxer with a smile, “but he did not please me at all. I saw at once that Tchebaroff was the moving spirit in the matter, and, to speak frankly, I thought he might have induced you, Mr. Burdovsky, to make this claim, by taking advantage of your simplicity.”