widower, he has written, he is coming here, and, do you know, we've loved him, none but him, all this time, and we've loved him all our life! He will come, and Grushenka will be happy again. For the last five years she's been wretched. But who can reproach her, who can boast of her favour? Only that bedridden old merchant, but he is more like her father, her friend, her protector. He found her then in despair, in agony, deserted by the man she loved. She was ready to drown herself then, but the old merchant saved her- saved her!"
"You defend me very kindly, dear young lady. You are in a great hurry about everything," Grushenka drawled again.
"Defend you! Is it for me to defend you? Should I dare to defend you? Grushenka, angel, give me your hand. Look at that charming soft little hand, Alexey Fyodorovitch! Look at it! It has brought me happiness and has lifted me up, and I'm going to kiss it, outside and inside, here, here, here!"
And three times she kissed the certainly charming, though rather fat, hand of Grushenka in a sort of rapture. She held out her hand with a charming musical, nervous little laugh, watched the "sweet young lady," and obviously liked having her hand kissed.
"Perhaps there's rather too much rapture," thought Alyosha. He blushed. He felt a peculiar uneasiness at heart the whole time.
"You won't make me blush, dear young lady, kissing my hand like this before Alexey Fyodorovitch."
"Do you think I meant to make you blush?" said Katerina Ivanovna, somewhat surprised. "Ah my dear, how little you understand me!
"Yes, and you too perhaps quite misunderstand me, dear young lady. Maybe I'm not so good as I seem to you. I've a bad heart; I will have my own way. I fascinated poor Dmitri Fyodorovitch that day simply for fun."
"But now you'll save him. You've given me your word. You'll explain it all to him. You'll break to him that you have long loved another man, who is now offering you his hand."
"Oh, no I didn't give you my word to do that. It was you kept talking about that. I didn't give you my word."
"Then I didn't quite understand you," said Katerina Ivanovna slowly, turning a little pale. "You promised-"
"Oh no, angel lady, I've promised nothing," Grushenka interrupted softly and evenly, still with the same gay and simple expression. "You see at once, dear young lady, what a wilful wretch I am compared with you. If I want to do a thing I do it. I may have made you some promise just now. But now again I'm thinking: I may take Mitya again. I liked him very much once- liked him for almost a whole hour. Now maybe I shall go and tell him to stay with me from this day forward. You see, I'm so changeable."
"Just now you said- something quite different," Katerina Ivanovna whispered faintly.
"Ah, just now! But, you know, I'm such a soft-hearted, silly creature. Only think what he's gone through on my account! What if when I go home I feel sorry for him? What then?"
"I never expected-"
"Ah, young lady, how good and generous you are compared with me! Now perhaps you won't care for a silly creature like me, now you know my character. Give me your sweet little hand, angelic lady," she said tenderly, and with a sort of reverence took Katerina Ivanovna's hand.
"Here, dear young lady, I'll take your hand and kiss it as you did mine. You kissed mine three times, but I ought to kiss yours three hundred times to be even with you. Well, but let that pass. And then it shall be as God wills. Perhaps I shall be your slave entirely and want to do your bidding like a slave. Let it be as God wills, without any agreements and promises. What a sweet hand- what a sweet hand you have! You sweet young lady, you incredible beauty!"
She slowly raised the hands to her lips, with the strange object indeed of "being even" with her in kisses.
Katerina Ivanovna did not take her hand away. She listened with timid hope to the last words, though Grushenka's promise to do her bidding like a slave was very strangely expressed. She looked intently into her eyes; she still saw in those eyes the same simple-hearted, confiding expression, the same bright gaiety.
"She's perhaps too naive," thought Katerina Ivanovna, with a gleam of hope.
Grushenka meanwhile seemed enthusiastic over the "sweet hand." She raised it deliberately to her lips. But she held it for two or three minutes near her lips, as though reconsidering something.
"Do you know, angel lady," she suddenly drawled in an even more soft and sugary voice, "do you know, after all, I think I won't kiss your hand?" And she laughed a little merry laugh.
"As you please. What's the matter with you?" said Katerina Ivanovna, starting suddenly.
"So that you may be left to remember that you kissed my hand, but I didn't kiss yours."
There was a sudden gleam in her eyes. She looked with awful intentness at Katerina Ivanovna.
"Insolent creature!" cried Katerina Ivanovna, as though suddenly grasping something. She flushed all over and leapt up from her seat.
Grushenka too got up, but without haste.
"So I shall tell Mitya how you kissed my hand, but I didn't kiss yours at all. And how he will laugh!"
"Vile slut! Go away!"
"Ah, for shame, young lady! Ah, for shame! That's unbecoming for you, dear young lady, a word like that."
"Go away! You're a creature for sale" screamed Katerina Ivanovna. Every feature was working in her utterly distorted face.
"For sale indeed! You used to visit gentlemen in the dusk for money once; you brought your beauty for sale. You see, I know."
Katerina Ivanovna shrieked, and would have rushed at her, but Alyosha held her with all his strength.
"Not a step, not a word! Don't speak, don't answer her. She'll go away- she'll go at once."
At that instant Katerina Ivanovna's two aunts ran in at her cry, and with them a maid-servant. All hurried to her.
"I will go away," said Grushenka, taking up her mantle from the sofa. "Alyosha, darling, see me home!"
"Go away- go away, make haste!" cried Alyosha, clasping his hands imploringly.
"Dear little Alyosha, see me home! I've got a pretty little story to tell you on the way. I got up this scene for your benefit, Alyosha. See me home, dear, you'll be glad of it afterwards."
Alyosha turned away, wringing his hands. Grushenka ran out of the house, laughing musically.
Katerina Ivanovna went into a fit of hysterics. She sobbed, and was shaken with convulsions. Everyone fussed round her.
"I warned you," said the elder of her aunts. "I tried to prevent your doing this. You're too impulsive. How could you do such a thing? You don't know these creatures, and they say she's worse than any of them. You are too self-willed."
"She's a tigress!" yelled Katerina Ivanovna. "Why did you hold me, Alexey Fyodorovitch? I'd have beaten her- beaten her!"
She could not control herself before Alyosha; perhaps she did not care to, indeed.
"She ought to be flogged in public on a scaffold!"
Alyosha withdrew towards the door.
"But, my God!" cried Katerina Ivanovna, clasping her hands. "He! He! He could be so dishonourable, so inhuman! Why, he told that creature what happened on that fatal, accursed day! 'You brought your beauty for sale, dear young lady.' She knows it! Your brother's a scoundrel, Alexey Fyodorovitch."
Alyosha wanted to say something, but he couldn't find a word. His heart ached.
"Go away, Alexey Fyodorovitch! It's shameful, it's awful for me! To-morrow, I beg you on my knees, come to-morrow. Don't condemm me. Forgive me. I don't know what I shall do with myself now!"
Alyosha walked out into the street reeling. He could have wept as she did. Suddenly he was overtaken by the maid.
"The young lady forgot to give you this letter from Madame Hohlakov; it's been left with us since dinner-time."
Alyosha took the little pink envelope mechanically and put it, almost unconsciously, into his pocket.