As to the evening party at the Epanchins' at which Princess Bielokonski was to be present, Varia had reported with accuracy; though she had perhaps expressed herself too strongly.
The thing was decided in a hurry and with a certain amount of quite unnecessary excitement, doubtless because "nothing could be done in this house like anywhere else."
The impatience of Lizabetha Prokofievna "to get things settled" explained a good deal, as well as the anxiety of both parents for the happiness of their beloved daughter. Besides, Princess Bielokonski was going away soon, and they hoped that she would take an interest in the prince. They were anxious that he should enter society under the auspices of this lady, whose patronage was the best of recommendations for any young man.
Even if there seems something strange about the match, the general and his wife said to each other, the "world" will accept Aglaya's fiance without any question if he is under the patronage of the princess. In any case, the prince would have to be "shown" sooner or later; that is, introduced into society, of which he had, so far, not the least idea. Moreover, it was only a question of a small gathering of a few intimate friends. Besides Princess Bielokonski, only one other lady was expected, the wife of a high dignitary. Evgenie Pavlovitch, who was to escort the princess, was the only young man.
Muishkin was told of the princess's visit three days beforehand, but nothing was said to him about the party until the night before it was to take place.
He could not help observing the excited and agitated condition of all members of the family, and from certain hints dropped in conversation he gathered that they were all anxious as to the impression he should make upon the princess. But the Epanchins, one and all, believed that Muishkin, in his simplicity of mind, was quite incapable of realizing that they could be feeling any anxiety on his account, and for this reason they all looked at him with dread and uneasiness.
In point of fact, he did attach marvellously little importance to the approaching event. He was occupied with altogether different thoughts. Aglaya was growing hourly more capricious and gloomy, and this distressed him. When they told him that Evgenie Pavlovitch was expected, he evinced great delight, and said that he had long wished to see him—and somehow these words did not please anyone.
Aglaya left the room in a fit of irritation, and it was not until late in the evening, past eleven, when the prince was taking his departure, that she said a word or two to him, privately, as she accompanied him as far as the front door.
"I should like you," she said, "not to come here tomorrow until evening, when the guests are all assembled. You know there are to be guests, don't you?"
She spoke impatiently and with severity; this was the first allusion she had made to the party of tomorrow.
She hated the idea of it, everyone saw that; and she would probably have liked to quarrel about it with her parents, but pride and modesty prevented her from broaching the subject.
The prince jumped to the conclusion that Aglaya, too, was nervous about him, and the impression he would make, and that she did not like to admit her anxiety; and this thought alarmed him.
"Yes, I am invited," he replied.
She was evidently in difficulties as to how best to go on. "May I speak of something serious to you, for once in my life?" she asked, angrily. She was irritated at she knew not what, and could not restrain her wrath.
"Of course you may; I am very glad to listen," replied Muishkin.
Aglaya was silent a moment and then began again with evident dislike of her subject:
"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?"
"Listen to me, Aglaya," said the prince, "I do believe you are nervous lest I shall make a fool of myself tomorrow at your party?"
"Nervous about you?" Aglaya blushed. "Why should I be nervous about you? What would it matter to me if you were to make ever such a fool of yourself? How can you say such a thing? What do you mean by 'making a fool of yourself'? What a vulgar expression! I suppose you intend to talk in that sort of way tomorrow evening? Look up a few more such expressions in your dictionary; do, you'll make a grand effect! I'm sorry that you seem to be able to come into a room as gracefully as you do; where did you learn the art? Do you think you can drink a cup of tea decently, when you know everybody is looking at you, on purpose to see how you do it?"
"Yes, I think I can."
"Can you? I'm sorry for it then, for I should have had a good laugh at you otherwise. Do break SOMETHING at least, in the drawing-room! Upset the Chinese vase, won't you? It's a valuable one; DO break it. Mamma values it, and she'll go out of her mind—it was a present. She'll cry before everyone, you'll see! Wave your hand about, you know, as you always do, and just smash it. Sit down near it on purpose."
"On the contrary, I shall sit as far from it as I can. Thanks for the hint."
"Ha, ha! Then you are afraid you WILL wave your arms about! I wouldn't mind betting that you'll talk about some lofty subject, something serious and learned. How delightful, how tactful that will be!"
"I should think it would be very foolish indeed, unless it happened to come in appropriately."
"Look here, once for all," cried Aglaya, boiling over, "if I hear you talking about capital punishment, or the economical condition of Russia, or about Beauty redeeming the world, or anything of that sort, I'll—well, of course I shall laugh and seem very pleased, but I warn you beforehand, don't look me in the face again! I'm serious now, mind, this time I AM REALLY serious." She certainly did say this very seriously, so much so, that she looked quite different from what she usually was, and the prince could not help noticing the fact. She did not seem to be joking in the slightest degree.
"Well, you've put me into such a fright that I shall certainly make a fool of myself, and very likely break something too. I wasn't a bit alarmed before, but now I'm as nervous as can be."
"Then don't speak at all. Sit still and don't talk."
"Oh, I can't do that, you know! I shall say something foolish out of pure 'funk,' and break something for the same excellent reason; I know I shall. Perhaps I shall slip and fall on the slippery floor; I've done that before now, you know. I shall dream of it all night now. Why did you say anything about it?"
Aglaya looked blackly at him.
"Do you know what, I had better not come at all tomorrow! I'll plead sick-list and stay away," said the prince, with decision.
Aglaya stamped her foot, and grew quite pale with anger.
"Oh, my goodness! Just listen to that! 'Better not come,' when the party is on purpose for him! Good Lord! What a delightful thing it is to have to do with such a—such a stupid as you are!"
"Well, I'll come, I'll come," interrupted the prince, hastily, "and I'll give you my word of honour that I will sit the whole evening and not say a word."
"I believe that's the best thing you can do. You said you'd 'plead sick-list' just now; where in the world do you get hold of such expressions? Why do you talk to me like this? Are you trying to irritate me, or what?"
"Forgive me, it's a schoolboy expression. I won't do it again. I know quite well, I see it, that you are anxious on my account (now, don't be angry), and it makes me very happy to see it. You wouldn't believe how frightened I am of misbehaving somehow, and how glad I am of your instructions. But all this panic is simply nonsense, you know, Aglaya! I give you my word it is; I am so pleased that you are such a child, such a dear good child. How CHARMING you can be if you like, Aglaya."
Aglaya wanted to be angry, of course, but suddenly some quite unexpected feeling seized upon her heart, all in a moment.
"And you won't reproach me for all these rude words of mine—some day—afterwards?" she asked, of a sudden.
"What an idea! Of course not. And what are you blushing for again? And there comes that frown once more! You've taken to looking too gloomy sometimes, Aglaya, much more than you used to. I know why it is."
"Be quiet, do be quiet!"
"No, no, I had much better speak out. I have long wished to say it, and HAVE said it, but that's not enough, for you didn't believe me. Between us two there stands a being who—"
"Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, be quiet!" Aglaya struck in, suddenly, seizing his hand in hers, and gazing at him almost in terror.
At this moment she was called by someone. She broke loose from him with an air of relief and ran away.
The prince was in a fever all night. It was strange, but he had suffered from fever for several nights in succession. On this particular night, while in semi-delirium, he had an idea: what if on the morrow he were to have a fit before everybody? The thought seemed to freeze his blood within him. All night he fancied himself in some extraordinary society of strange persons. The worst of it was that he was talking nonsense; he knew that he ought not to speak at all, and yet he talked the whole time; he seemed to be trying to persuade them all to something. Evgenie and Hippolyte were among the guests, and appeared to be great friends.
He awoke towards nine o'clock with a headache, full of confused ideas and strange impressions. For some reason or other he felt most anxious to see Rogojin, to see and talk to him, but what he wished to say he could not tell. Next, he determined to go and see Hippolyte. His mind was in a confused state, so much so that the incidents of the morning seemed to be imperfectly realized, though acutely felt.
One of these incidents was a visit from Lebedeff. Lebedeff came rather early—before ten—but he was tipsy already. Though the prince was not in an observant condition, yet he could not avoid seeing that for at least three days—ever since General Ivolgin had left the house Lebedeff had been behaving very badly. He looked untidy and dirty at all times of the day, and it was said that he had begun to rage about in his own house, and that his temper was very bad. As soon as he arrived this morning, he began to hold forth, beating his breast and apparently blaming himself for something.
"I've—I've had a reward for my meanness—I've had a slap in the face," he concluded, tragically.
"A slap in the face? From whom? And so early in the morning?"
"Early?" said Lebedeff, sarcastically. "Time counts for nothing, even in physical chastisement; but my slap in the face was not physical, it was moral."
He suddenly took a seat, very unceremoniously, and began his story. It was very disconnected; the prince frowned, and wished he could get away; but suddenly a few words struck him. He sat stiff with wonder—Lebedeff said some extraordinary things.
In the first place he began about some letter; the name of Aglaya Ivanovna came in. Then suddenly he broke off and began to accuse the prince of something; he was apparently offended with him. At first he declared that the prince had trusted him with his confidences as to "a certain person" (Nastasia Philipovna), but that of late his friendship had been thrust back into his bosom, and his innocent question as to "approaching family changes" had been curtly put aside, which Lebedeff declared, with tipsy tears, he could not bear; especially as he knew so much already both from Rogojin and Nastasia Philipovna and her friend, and from Varvara Ardalionovna, and even from Aglaya Ivanovna, through his daughter Vera. "And who told Lizabetha Prokofievna something in secret, by letter? Who told her all about the movements of a certain person called Nastasia Philipovna? Who was the anonymous person, eh? Tell me!"
"Surely not you?" cried the prince.
"Just so," said Lebedeff, with dignity; "and only this very morning I have sent up a letter to the noble lady, stating that I have a matter of great importance to communicate. She received the letter; I know she got it; and she received ME, too."
"Have you just seen Lizabetha Prokofievna?" asked the prince, scarcely believing his ears.
"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."
"What letter do you mean she returned unopened?"
"What! didn't I tell you? Ha, ha, ha! I thought I had. Why, I received a letter, you know, to be handed over—"
"From whom? To whom?"
But it was difficult, if not impossible, to extract anything from Lebedeff. All the prince could gather was, that the letter had been received very early, and had a request written on the outside that it might be sent on to the address given.
"Just as before, sir, just as before! To a certain person, and from a certain hand. The individual's name who wrote the letter is to be represented by the letter A.—"
"What? Impossible! To Nastasia Philipovna? Nonsense!" cried the prince.
"It was, I assure you, and if not to her then to Rogojin, which is the same thing. Mr. Hippolyte has had letters, too, and all from the individual whose name begins with an A.," smirked Lebedeff, with a hideous grin.
As he kept jumping from subject to subject, and forgetting what he had begun to talk about, the prince said nothing, but waited, to give him time.
It was all very vague. Who had taken the letters, if letters there were? Probably Vera—and how could Lebedeff have got them? In all probability, he had managed to steal the present letter from Vera, and had himself gone over to Lizabetha Prokofievna with some idea in his head. So the prince concluded at last.
"You are mad!" he cried, indignantly.
"Not quite, esteemed prince," replied Lebedeff, with some acerbity. "I confess I thought of doing you the service of handing the letter over to yourself, but I decided that it would pay me better to deliver it up to the noble lady aforesaid, as I had informed her of everything hitherto by anonymous letters; so when I sent her up a note from myself, with the letter, you know, in order to fix a meeting for eight o'clock this morning, I signed it 'your secret correspondent.' They let me in at once—very quickly—by the back door, and the noble lady received me."
"Well? Go on."
"Oh, well, when I saw her she almost punched my head, as I say; in fact so nearly that one might almost say she did punch my head. She threw the letter in my face; she seemed to reflect first, as if she would have liked to keep it, but thought better of it and threw it in my face instead. 'If anybody can have been such a fool as to trust a man like you to deliver the letter,' says she,' take it and deliver it! 'Hey! she was grandly indignant. A fierce, fiery lady that, sir!"
"Where's the letter now?"
"Oh, I've still got it, here!"
And he handed the prince the very letter from Aglaya to Gania, which the latter showed with so much triumph to his Sister at a later hour.
"This letter cannot be allowed to remain in your hands."
"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.
"This letter should be sent on at once," said the prince, disturbed. "I'll hand it over myself."
"Wouldn't it be better, esteemed prince, wouldn't it be better—to—don't you know—"
Lebedeff made a strange and very expressive grimace; he twisted about in his chair, and did something, apparently symbolical, with his hands.
"What do you mean?" said the prince.
"Why, open it, for the time being, don't you know?" he said, most confidentially and mysteriously.
The prince jumped up so furiously that Lebedeff ran towards the door; having gained which strategic position, however, he stopped and looked back to see if he might hope for pardon.
"Oh, Lebedeff, Lebedeff! Can a man really sink to such depths of meanness?" said the prince, sadly.
Lebedeff's face brightened.
"Oh, I'm a mean wretch—a mean wretch!" he said, approaching the prince once more, and beating his breast, with tears in his eyes.
"It's abominable dishonesty, you know!"
"Dishonesty—it is, it is! That's the very word!"
"What in the world induces you to act so? You are nothing but a spy. Why did you write anonymously to worry so noble and generous a lady? Why should not Aglaya Ivanovna write a note to whomever she pleases? What did you mean to complain of today? What did you expect to get by it? What made you go at all?"
"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!"
"Did you go before Lizabetha Prokofievna in your present condition?" inquired the prince.
"No—oh no, fresher—more the correct card. I only became this like after the humiliation I suffered there,
"Well—that'll do; now leave me."
This injunction had to be repeated several times before the man could be persuaded to move. Even then he turned back at the door, came as far as the middle of the room, and there went through his mysterious motions designed to convey the suggestion that the prince should open the letter. He did not dare put his suggestion into words again.
After this performance, he smiled sweetly and left the room on tiptoe.
All this had been very painful to listen to. One fact stood out certain and clear, and that was that poor Aglaya must be in a state of great distress and indecision and mental torment ("from jealousy," the prince whispered to himself). Undoubtedly in this inexperienced, but hot and proud little head, there were all sorts of plans forming, wild and impossible plans, maybe; and the idea of this so frightened the prince that he could not make up his mind what to do. Something must be done, that was clear.
He looked at the address on the letter once more. Oh, he was not in the least degree alarmed about Aglaya writing such a letter; he could trust her. What he did not like about it was that he could not trust Gania.
However, he made up his mind that he would himself take the note and deliver it. Indeed, he went so far as to leave the house and walk up the road, but changed his mind when he had nearly reached Ptitsin's door. However, he there luckily met Colia, and commissioned him to deliver the letter to his brother as if direct from Aglaya. Colia asked no questions but simply delivered it, and Gania consequently had no suspicion that it had passed through so many hands.
Arrived home again, the prince sent for Vera Lebedeff and told her as much as was necessary, in order to relieve her mind, for she had been in a dreadful state of anxiety since she had missed the letter. She heard with horror that her father had taken it. Muishkin learned from her that she had on several occasions performed secret missions both for Aglaya and for Rogojin, without, however, having had the slightest idea that in so doing she might injure the prince in any way.
The latter, with one thing and another, was now so disturbed and confused, that when, a couple of hours or so later, a message came from Colia that the general was ill, he could hardly take the news in.
However, when he did master the fact, it acted upon him as a tonic by completely distracting his attention. He went at once to Nina Alexandrovna's, whither the general had been carried, and stayed there until the evening. He could do no good, but there are people whom to have near one is a blessing at such times. Colia was in an almost hysterical state; he cried continuously, but was running about all day, all the same; fetching doctors, of whom he collected three; going to the chemist's, and so on.
The general was brought round to some extent, but the doctors declared that he could not be said to be out of danger. Varia and Nina Alexandrovna never left the sick man's bedside; Gania was excited and distressed, but would not go upstairs, and seemed afraid to look at the patient. He wrung his hands when the prince spoke to him, and said that "such a misfortune at such a moment" was terrible.
The prince thought he knew what Gania meant by "such a moment."
Hippolyte was not in the house. Lebedeff turned up late in the afternoon; he had been asleep ever since his interview with the prince in the morning. He was quite sober now, and cried with real sincerity over the sick general—mourning for him as though he were his own brother. He blamed himself aloud, but did not explain why. He repeated over and over again to Nina Alexandrovna that he alone was to blame—no one else—but that he had acted out of "pure amiable curiosity," and that "the deceased," as he insisted upon calling the still living general, had been the greatest of geniuses.
He laid much stress on the genius of the sufferer, as if this idea must be one of immense solace in the present crisis.
Nina Alexandrovna—seeing his sincerity of feeling—said at last, and without the faintest suspicion of reproach in her voice: "Come, come—don't cry! God will forgive you!"
Lebedeff was so impressed by these words, and the tone in which they were spoken, that he could not leave Nina Alexandrovna all the evening—in fact, for several days. Till the general's death, indeed, he spent almost all his time at his side.
Twice during the day a messenger came to Nina Alexandrovna from the Epanchins to inquire after the invalid.
When—late in the evening—the prince made his appearance in Lizabetha Prokofievna's drawing-room, he found it full of guests. Mrs. Epanchin questioned him very fully about the general as soon as he appeared; and when old Princess Bielokonski wished to know "who this general was, and who was Nina Alexandrovna," she proceeded to explain in a manner which pleased the prince very much.
He himself, when relating the circumstances of the general's illness to Lizabetha Prokofievna, "spoke beautifully," as Aglaya's sisters declared afterwards—"modestly, quietly, without gestures or too many words, and with great dignity." He had entered the room with propriety and grace, and he was perfectly dressed; he not only did not "fall down on the slippery floor," as he had expressed it, but evidently made a very favourable impression upon the assembled guests.
As for his own impression on entering the room and taking his seat, he instantly remarked that the company was not in the least such as Aglaya's words had led him to fear, and as he had dreamed of—in nightmare form—all night.
This was the first time in his life that he had seen a little corner of what was generally known by the terrible name of "society." He had long thirsted, for reasons of his own, to penetrate the mysteries of the magic circle, and, therefore, this assemblage was of the greatest possible interest to him.
His first impression was one of fascination. Somehow or other he felt that all these people must have been born on purpose to be together! It seemed to him that the Epanchins were not having a party at all; that these people must have been here always, and that he himself was one of them—returned among them after a long absence, but one of them, naturally and indisputably.
It never struck him that all this refined simplicity and nobility and wit and personal dignity might possibly be no more than an exquisite artistic polish. The majority of the guests—who were somewhat empty-headed, after all, in spite of their aristocratic bearing—never guessed, in their self-satisfied composure, that much of their superiority was mere veneer, which indeed they had adopted unconsciously and by inheritance.
The prince would never so much as suspect such a thing in the delight of his first impression.
He saw, for instance, that one important dignitary, old enough to be his grandfather, broke off his own conversation in order to listen to HIM—a young and inexperienced man; and not only listened, but seemed to attach value to his opinion, and was kind and amiable, and yet they were strangers and had never seen each other before. Perhaps what most appealed to the prince's impressionability was the refinement of the old man's courtesy towards him. Perhaps the soil of his susceptible nature was really predisposed to receive a pleasant impression.
Meanwhile all these people-though friends of the family and of each other to a certain extent—were very far from being such intimate friends of the family and of each other as the prince concluded. There were some present who never would think of considering the Epanchins their equals. There were even some who hated one another cordially. For instance, old Princess Bielokonski had all her life despised the wife of the "dignitary," while the latter was very far from loving Lizabetha Prokofievna. The dignitary himself had been General Epanchin's protector from his youth up; and the general considered him so majestic a personage that he would have felt a hearty contempt for himself if he had even for one moment allowed himself to pose as the great man's equal, or to think of him—in his fear and reverence-as anything less than an Olympic God! There were others present who had not met for years, and who had no feeling whatever for each other, unless it were dislike; and yet they met tonight as though they had seen each other but yesterday in some friendly and intimate assembly of kindred spirits.
It was not a large party, however. Besides Princess Bielokonski and the old dignitary (who was really a great man) and his wife, there was an old military general—a count or baron with a German name, a man reputed to possess great knowledge and administrative ability. He was one of those Olympian administrators who know everything except Russia, pronounce a word of extraordinary wisdom, admired by all, about once in five years, and, after being an eternity in the service, generally die full of honour and riches, though they have never done anything great, and have even been hostile to all greatness. This general was Ivan Fedorovitch's immediate superior in the service; and it pleased the latter to look upon him also as a patron. On the other hand, the great man did not at all consider himself Epanchin's patron. He was always very cool to him, while taking advantage of his ready services, and would instantly have put another in his place if there had been the slightest reason for the change.
Another guest was an elderly, important-looking gentleman, a distant relative of Lizabetha Prokofievna's. This gentleman was rich, held a good position, was a great talker, and had the reputation of being "one of the dissatisfied," though not belonging to the dangerous sections of that class. He had the manners, to some extent, of the English aristocracy, and some of their tastes (especially in the matter of under-done roast beef, harness, men-servants, etc.). He was a great friend of the dignitary's, and Lizabetha Prokofievna, for some reason or other, had got hold of the idea that this worthy intended at no distant date to offer the advantages of his hand and heart to Alexandra.
Besides the elevated and more solid individuals enumerated, there were present a few younger though not less elegant guests. Besides Prince S. and Evgenie Pavlovitch, we must name the eminent and fascinating Prince N.—once the vanquisher of female hearts all over Europe. This gentleman was no longer in the first bloom of youth—he was forty-five, but still very handsome. He was well off, and lived, as a rule, abroad, and was noted as a good teller of stories. Then came a few guests belonging to a lower stratum of society—people who, like the Epanchins themselves, moved only occasionally in this exalted sphere. The Epanchins liked to draft among their more elevated guests a few picked representatives of this lower stratum, and Lizabetha Prokofievna received much praise for this practice, which proved, her friends said, that she was a woman of tact. The Epanchins prided themselves upon the good opinion people held of them.
One of the representatives of the middle-class present today was a colonel of engineers, a very serious man and a great friend of Prince S., who had introduced him to the Epanchins. He was extremely silent in society, and displayed on the forefinger of his right hand a large ring, probably bestowed upon him for services of some sort. There was also a poet, German by name, but a Russian poet; very presentable, and even handsome-the sort of man one could bring into society with impunity. This gentleman belonged to a German family of decidedly bourgeois origin, but he had a knack of acquiring the patronage of "big-wigs," and of retaining their favour. He had translated some great German poem into Russian verse, and claimed to have been a friend of a famous Russian poet, since dead. (It is strange how great a multitude of literary people there are who have had the advantages of friendship with some great man of their own profession who is, unfortunately, dead.) The dignitary's wife had introduced this worthy to the Epanchins. This lady posed as the patroness of literary people, and she certainly had succeeded in obtaining pensions for a few of them, thanks to her influence with those in authority on such matters. She was a lady of weight in her own way. Her age was about forty-five, so that she was a very young wife for such an elderly husband as the dignitary. She had been a beauty in her day and still loved, as many ladies of forty-five do love, to dress a little too smartly. Her intellect was nothing to boast of, and her literary knowledge very doubtful. Literary patronage was, however, with her as much a mania as was the love of gorgeous clothes. Many books and translations were dedicated to her by her proteges, and a few of these talented individuals had published some of their own letters to her, upon very weighty subjects.
This, then, was the society that the prince accepted at once as true coin, as pure gold without alloy.
It so happened, however, that on this particular evening all these good people were in excellent humour and highly pleased with themselves. Every one of them felt that they were doing the Epanchins the greatest possible honour by their presence. But alas! the prince never suspected any such subtleties! For instance, he had no suspicion of the fact that the Epanchins, having in their mind so important a step as the marriage of their daughter, would never think of presuming to take it without having previously "shown off" the proposed husband to the dignitary—the recognized patron of the family. The latter, too, though he would probably have received news of a great disaster to the Epanchin family with perfect composure, would nevertheless have considered it a personal offence if they had dared to marry their daughter without his advice, or we might almost say, his leave.
The amiable and undoubtedly witty Prince N. could not but feel that he was as a sun, risen for one night only to shine upon the Epanchin drawing-room. He accounted them immeasurably his inferiors, and it was this feeling which caused his special amiability and delightful ease and grace towards them. He knew very well that he must tell some story this evening for the edification of the company, and led up to it with the inspiration of anticipatory triumph.
The prince, when he heard the story afterwards, felt that he had never yet come across so wonderful a humorist, or such remarkable brilliancy as was shown by this man; and yet if he had only known it, this story was the oldest, stalest, and most worn-out yarn, and every drawing-room in town was sick to death of it. It was only in the innocent Epanchin household that it passed for a new and brilliant tale—as a sudden and striking reminiscence of a splendid and talented man.
Even the German poet, though as amiable as possible, felt that he was doing the house the greatest of honours by his presence in it.
But the prince only looked at the bright side; he did not turn the coat and see the shabby lining.
Aglaya had not foreseen that particular calamity. She herself looked wonderfully beautiful this evening. All three sisters were dressed very tastefully, and their hair was done with special care.
Aglaya sat next to Evgenie Pavlovitch, and laughed and talked to him with an unusual display of friendliness. Evgenie himself behaved rather more sedately than usual, probably out of respect to the dignitary. Evgenie had been known in society for a long while. He had appeared at the Epanchins' today with crape on his hat, and Princess Bielokonski had commended this action on his part. Not every society man would have worn crape for "such an uncle." Lizabetha Prokofievna had liked it also, but was too preoccupied to take much notice. The prince remarked that Aglaya looked attentively at him two or three times, and seemed to be satisfied with his behaviour.
Little by little he became very happy indeed. All his late anxieties and apprehensions (after his conversation with Lebedeff) now appeared like so many bad dreams—impossible, and even laughable.
He did not speak much, only answering such questions as were put to him, and gradually settled down into unbroken silence, listening to what went on, and steeped in perfect satisfaction and contentment.
Little by little a sort of inspiration, however, began to stir within him, ready to spring into life at the right moment. When he did begin to speak, it was accidentally, in response to a question, and apparently without any special object.