Keller started, gave an astonished look at the speaker, and thumped the table with his fist.There was no room for doubt in the prince’s mind: one of the voices was Rogojin’s, and the other Lebedeff’s.“I’m not laughing. I am convinced, myself, that that may have been partly the reason.”
“Old story? No! Heaven knows what’s up now--I don’t! Father has simply gone mad; mother’s in floods of tears. Upon my word, Varia, I must kick him out of the house; or else go myself,” he added, probably remembering that he could not well turn people out of a house which was not his own.
“Very well then, stay at home,” said Mrs. Epanchin, “and a good thing too, for Evgenie Pavlovitch is coming down and there will be no one at home to receive him.”
The prince heard the whole of the foregoing conversation, as he sat at the table, writing. He finished at last, and brought the result of his labour to the general’s desk.
Hippolyte gazed eagerly at the latter, and mused for a few moments.
“Oh, no--no--I’m all right, I assure you!”
For some minutes he did not seem to comprehend the excitement around him; that is, he comprehended it and saw everything, but he stood aside, as it were, like someone invisible in a fairy tale, as though he had nothing to do with what was going on, though it pleased him to take an interest in it.“Oh, dear me, I really do not require such profuse apologies,” replied the prince, hastily. “I quite understand how unpleasant your position is, and that is what made you abuse me. So come along to your house, after all. I shall be delighted--”“You shall have lots of money; by the evening I shall have plenty; so come along!”
“And how did you recognize me?”
“I did not know of its existence till this moment,” declared Hippolyte. “I do not approve of it.”
“Having now shown you that I am not quite such a fool as I look, and that I have to be fished for with a rod and line for a good long while before I am caught, I will proceed to explain why I specially wished to make your brother look a fool. That my motive power is hate, I do not attempt to conceal. I have felt that before dying (and I am dying, however much fatter I may appear to you), I must absolutely make a fool of, at least, one of that class of men which has dogged me all my life, which I hate so cordially, and which is so prominently represented by your much esteemed brother. I should not enjoy paradise nearly so much without having done this first. I hate you, Gavrila Ardalionovitch, solely (this may seem curious to you, but I repeat)--solely because you are the type, and incarnation, and head, and crown of the most impudent, the most self-satisfied, the most vulgar and detestable form of commonplaceness. You are ordinary of the ordinary; you have no chance of ever fathering the pettiest idea of your own. And yet you are as jealous and conceited as you can possibly be; you consider yourself a great genius; of this you are persuaded, although there are dark moments of doubt and rage, when even this fact seems uncertain. There are spots of darkness on your horizon, though they will disappear when you become completely stupid. But a long and chequered path lies before you, and of this I am glad. In the first place you will never gain a certain person.”
He had not said a word yet; he sat silent and listened to Evgenie Pavlovitch’s eloquence. The latter had never appeared so happy and excited as on this evening. The prince listened to him, but for a long time did not take in a word he said.
“I will not accept ten thousand roubles,” said Burdovsky.
“He began to talk at once excitedly and with trembling lips; he began complaining and telling me his story. He interested me, I confess; I sat there nearly an hour. His story was a very ordinary one. He had been a provincial doctor; he had a civil appointment, and had no sooner taken it up than intrigues began. Even his wife was dragged into these. He was proud, and flew into a passion; there was a change of local government which acted in favour of his opponents; his position was undermined, complaints were made against him; he lost his post and came up to Petersburg with his last remaining money, in order to appeal to higher authorities. Of course nobody would listen to him for a long time; he would come and tell his story one day and be refused promptly; another day he would be fed on false promises; again he would be treated harshly; then he would be told to sign some documents; then he would sign the paper and hand it in, and they would refuse to receive it, and tell him to file a formal petition. In a word he had been driven about from office to office for five months and had spent every farthing he had; his wife’s last rags had just been pawned; and meanwhile a child had been born to them and--and today I have a final refusal to my petition, and I have hardly a crumb of bread left--I have nothing left; my wife has had a baby lately--and I--I--’
“General, remember the siege of Kars! And you, gentlemen, I assure you my anecdote is the naked truth. I may remark that reality, although it is governed by invariable law, has at times a resemblance to falsehood. In fact, the truer a thing is the less true it sounds.”
“Why, don’t you, aren’t you--” began the general, in alarm.
“Speak, but keep to the point!”
The general laughed with great satisfaction, and applied himself once more to the champagne.Gavrila Ardalionovitch meanwhile seemed to be trying to recall something.
“You are crying, aren’t you?”
“It is very curious, this story of the medical man, and my visit, and the happy termination to which I contributed by accident! Everything fitted in, as in a novel. I told the poor people not to put much hope in me, because I was but a poor schoolboy myself--(I am not really, but I humiliated myself as much as possible in order to make them less hopeful)--but that I would go at once to the Vassili Ostroff and see my friend; and that as I knew for certain that his uncle adored him, and was absolutely devoted to him as the last hope and branch of the family, perhaps the old man might do something to oblige his nephew.
When recalling all this afterwards the prince could not for the life of him understand how to reconcile the beautiful, sincere, pure nature of the girl with the irony of this jest. That it was a jest there was no doubt whatever; he knew that well enough, and had good reason, too, for his conviction; for during her recitation of the ballad Aglaya had deliberately changed the letters A. N. B. into N. P. B. He was quite sure she had not done this by accident, and that his ears had not deceived him. At all events her performance--which was a joke, of course, if rather a crude one,--was premeditated. They had evidently talked (and laughed) over the ‘poor knight’ for more than a month.
“There was no Eropegoff? Eroshka Eropegoff?” he cried, suddenly, stopping in the road in a frenzy. “No Eropegoff! And my own son to say it! Eropegoff was in the place of a brother to me for eleven months. I fought a duel for him. He was married afterwards, and then killed on the field of battle. The bullet struck the cross on my breast and glanced off straight into his temple. ‘I’ll never forget you,’ he cried, and expired. I served my country well and honestly, Colia, but shame, shame has pursued me! You and Nina will come to my grave, Colia; poor Nina, I always used to call her Nina in the old days, and how she loved.... Nina, Nina, oh, Nina. What have I ever done to deserve your forgiveness and long-suffering? Oh, Colia, your mother has an angelic spirit, an angelic spirit, Colia!”
He jumped up and walked off as fast as he could towards the “Petersburg Side.” [One of the quarters of St. Petersburg.] He had asked someone, a little while before, to show him which was the Petersburg Side, on the banks of the Neva. He had not gone there, however; and he knew very well that it was of no use to go now, for he would certainly not find Lebedeff’s relation at home. He had the address, but she must certainly have gone to Pavlofsk, or Colia would have let him know. If he were to go now, it would merely be out of curiosity, but a sudden, new idea had come into his head.“How so? Did he bring the portrait for my husband?”Hippolyte turned upon him, a prey to maniacal rage, which set all the muscles of his face quivering.“I really think I must have seen him somewhere!” she murmured seriously enough.
“Capital, that’s much better!” cried Lebedeff, and seizing the key he made off in haste.
“Dear me, what a philosopher you are!” laughed the prince.
“Gentlemen, this--you’ll soon see what this is,” began Hippolyte, and suddenly commenced his reading.
“I have never seen you before!”
“Oh! I didn’t say it because I _doubt_ the fact, you know. (Ha, ha.) How could I doubt such a thing? (Ha, ha, ha.) I made the remark because--because Nicolai Andreevitch Pavlicheff was such a splendid man, don’t you see! Such a high-souled man, he really was, I assure you.”
“There’s news!” said the general in some excitement, after listening to the story with engrossed attention.“H’m! you spent your postage for nothing, then. H’m! you are candid, however--and that is commendable. H’m! Mrs. Epanchin--oh yes! a most eminent person. I know her. As for Mr. Pavlicheff, who supported you in Switzerland, I know him too--at least, if it was Nicolai Andreevitch of that name? A fine fellow he was--and had a property of four thousand souls in his day.”