THE prince understood at last why he shivered with dread every time he though_f the three letters in his pocket, and why he had put off reading them unti_he evening.
When he fell into a heavy sleep on the sofa on the verandah, without havin_ad the courage to open a single one of the three envelopes, he again dreame_ painful dream, and once more that poor, "sinful" woman appeared to him.
Again she gazed at him with tears sparkling on her long lashes, and beckone_im after her; and again he awoke, as before, with the picture of her fac_aunting him.
He longed to get up and go to her at once—but he COULD NOT. At length, almos_n despair, he unfolded the letters, and began to read them.
These letters, too, were like a dream. We sometimes have strange, impossibl_reams, contrary to all the laws of nature. When we awake we remember them an_onder at their strangeness. You remember, perhaps, that you were in ful_ossession of your reason during this succession of fantastic images; eve_hat you acted with extraordinary logic and cunning while surrounded b_urderers who hid their intentions and made great demonstrations o_riendship, while waiting for an opportunity to cut your throat. You remembe_ow you escaped them by some ingenious stratagem; then you doubted if the_ere really deceived, or whether they were only pretending not to know you_iding-place; then you thought of another plan and hoodwinked them once again.
You remember all this quite clearly, but how is it that your reason calml_ccepted all the manifest absurdities and impossibilities that crowded int_our dream? One of the murderers suddenly changed into a woman before you_ery eyes; then the woman was transformed into a hideous, cunning littl_warf; and you believed it, and accepted it all almost as a matter o_ourse—while at the same time your intelligence seemed unusually keen, an_ccomplished miracles of cunning, sagacity, and logic! Why is it that when yo_wake to the world of realities you nearly always feel, sometimes ver_ividly, that the vanished dream has carried with it some enigma which yo_ave failed to solve? You smile at the extravagance of your dream, and yet yo_eel that this tissue of absurdity contained some real idea, something tha_elongs to your true life,—something that exists, and has always existed, i_our heart. You search your dream for some prophecy that you were expecting.
It has left a deep impression upon you, joyful or cruel, but what it means, o_hat has been predicted to you in it, you can neither understand nor remember.
The reading of these letters produced some such effect upon the prince. H_elt, before he even opened the envelopes, that the very fact of thei_xistence was like a nightmare. How could she ever have made up her mind t_rite to her? he asked himself. How could she write about that at all? And ho_ould such a wild idea have entered her head? And yet, the strangest part o_he matter was, that while he read the letters, he himself almost believed i_he possibility, and even in the justification, of the idea he had thought s_ild. Of course it was a mad dream, a nightmare, and yet there was somethin_ruelly real about it. For hours he was haunted by what he had read. Severa_assages returned again and again to his mind, and as he brooded over them, h_elt inclined to say to himself that he had foreseen and known all that wa_ritten here; it even seemed to him that he had read the whole of this som_ime or other, long, long ago; and all that had tormented and grieved him u_o now was to be found in these old, long since read, letters.
"When you open this letter" (so the first began), "look first at th_ignature. The signature will tell you all, so that I need explain nothing, nor attempt to justify myself. Were I in any way on a footing with you, yo_ight be offended at my audacity; but who am I, and who are you? We are a_uch extremes, and I am so far removed from you, that I could not offend yo_f I wished to do so."
Farther on, in another place, she wrote: "Do not consider my words as th_ickly ecstasies of a diseased mind, but you are, in my opinion—perfection! _ave seen you—I see you every day. I do not judge you; I have not weighed yo_n the scales of Reason and found you Perfection—it is simply an article o_aith. But I must confess one sin against you—I love you. One should not lov_erfection. One should only look on it as perfection—yet I am in love wit_ou. Though love equalizes, do not fear. I have not lowered you to my level, even in my most secret thoughts. I have written 'Do not fear,' as if you coul_ear. I would kiss your footprints if I could; but, oh! I am not puttin_yself on a level with you!—Look at the signature—quick, look at th_ignature!"
"However, observe" (she wrote in another of the letters), "that although _ouple you with him, yet I have not once asked you whether you love him. H_ell in love with you, though he saw you but once. He spoke of you as of 'th_ight.' These are his own words—I heard him use them. But I understood withou_is saying it that you were all that light is to him. I lived near him for _hole month, and I understood then that you, too, must love him. I think o_ou and him as one."
"What was the matter yesterday?" (she wrote on another sheet). "I passed b_ou, and you seemed to me to BLUSH. Perhaps it was only my fancy. If I were t_ring you to the most loathsome den, and show you the revelation o_ndisguised vice—you should not blush. You can never feel the sense o_ersonal affront. You may hate all who are mean, or base, or unworthy—but no_or yourself—only for those whom they wrong. No one can wrong YOU. Do yo_now, I think you ought to love me—for you are the same in my eyes as in his- you are as light. An angel cannot hate, perhaps cannot love, either. I ofte_sk myself—is it possible to love everybody? Indeed it is not; it is not i_ature. Abstract love of humanity is nearly always love of self. But you ar_ifferent. You cannot help loving all, since you can compare with none, an_re above all personal offence or anger. Oh! how bitter it would be to me t_now that you felt anger or shame on my account, for that would be you_all—you would become comparable at once with such as me.
"Yesterday, after seeing you, I went home and thought out a picture.
"Artists always draw the Saviour as an actor in one of the Gospel stories. _hould do differently. I should represent Christ alone—the disciples did leav_im alone occasionally. I should paint one little child left with Him. Thi_hild has been playing about near Him, and had probably just been telling th_aviour something in its pretty baby prattle. Christ had listened to it, bu_as now musing—one hand reposing on the child's bright head. His eyes have _ar-away expression. Thought, great as the Universe, is in them—His face i_ad. The little one leans its elbow upon Christ's knee, and with its chee_esting on its hand, gazes up at Him, pondering as children sometimes d_onder. The sun is setting. There you have my picture.
"You are innocent—and in your innocence lies all your perfection—oh, remembe_hat! What is my passion to you?—you are mine now; I shall be near you all m_ife—I shall not live long!"
At length, in the last letter of all, he found:
"For Heaven's sake, don't misunderstand me! Do not think that I humiliat_yself by writing thus to you, or that I belong to that class of people wh_ake a satisfaction in humiliating themselves—from pride. I have m_onsolation, though it would be difficult to explain it—but I do not humiliat_yself.
"Why do I wish to unite you two? For your sakes or my own? For my own sake, naturally. All the problems of my life would thus be solved; I have thought s_or a long time. I know that once when your sister Adelaida saw my portrai_he said that such beauty could overthrow the world. But I have renounced th_orld. You think it strange that I should say so, for you saw me decked wit_ace and diamonds, in the company of drunkards and wastrels. Take no notice o_hat; I know that I have almost ceased to exist. God knows what it is dwellin_ithin me now—it is not myself. I can see it every day in two dreadful eye_hich are always looking at me, even when not present. These eyes are silen_ow, they say nothing; but I know their secret. His house is gloomy, and ther_s a secret in it. I am convinced that in some box he has a razor hidden, tie_ound with silk, just like the one that Moscow murderer had. This man als_ived with his mother, and had a razor hidden away, tied round with whit_ilk, and with this razor he intended to cut a throat.
"All the while I was in their house I felt sure that somewhere beneath th_loor there was hidden away some dreadful corpse, wrapped in oil-cloth, perhaps buried there by his father, who knows? Just as in the Moscow case. _ould have shown you the very spot!
"He is always silent, but I know well that he loves me so much that he mus_ate me. My wedding and yours are to be on the same day; so I have arrange_ith him. I have no secrets from him. I would kill him from very fright, bu_e will kill me first. He has just burst out laughing, and says that I a_aving. He knows I am writing to you."
There was much more of this delirious wandering in the letters—one of them wa_ery long.
At last the prince came out of the dark, gloomy park, in which he had wandere_bout for hours just as yesterday. The bright night seemed to him to b_ighter than ever. "It must be quite early," he thought. (He had forgotten hi_atch.) There was a sound of distant music somewhere. "Ah," he thought, "th_auxhall! They won't be there today, of course!" At this moment he notice_hat he was close to their house; he had felt that he must gravitate to thi_pot eventually, and, with a beating heart, he mounted the verandah steps.
No one met him; the verandah was empty, and nearly pitch dark. He opened th_oor into the room, but it, too, was dark and empty. He stood in the middle o_he room in perplexity. Suddenly the door opened, and in came Alexandra, candle in hand. Seeing the prince she stopped before him in surprise, lookin_t him questioningly.
It was clear that she had been merely passing through the room from door t_oor, and had not had the remotest notion that she would meet anyone.
"How did you come here?" she asked, at last.
"Mamma is not very well, nor is Aglaya. Adelaida has gone to bed, and I a_ust going. We were alone the whole evening. Father and Prince S. have gone t_own."
"I have come to you—now—to—"
"Do you know what time it is?"
"Half-past twelve. We are always in bed by one."
"I-I thought it was half-past nine!"
"Never mind!" she laughed, "but why didn't you come earlier? Perhaps you wer_xpected!"
"I thought" he stammered, making for the door.
"Au revoir! I shall amuse them all with this story tomorrow!"
He walked along the road towards his own house. His heart was beating, hi_houghts were confused, everything around seemed to be part of a dream.
And suddenly, just as twice already he had awaked from sleep with the sam_ision, that very apparition now seemed to rise up before him. The woma_ppeared to step out from the park, and stand in the path in front of him, a_hough she had been waiting for him there.
He shuddered and stopped; she seized his hand and pressed it frenziedly.
No, this was no apparition!
There she stood at last, face to face with him, for the first time since thei_arting.
She said something, but he looked silently back at her. His heart ached wit_nguish. Oh! never would he banish the recollection of this meeting with her, and he never remembered it but with the same pain and agony of mind.
She went on her knees before him—there in the open road—like a madwoman. H_etreated a step, but she caught his hand and kissed it, and, just as in hi_ream, the tears were sparkling on her long, beautiful lashes.
"Get up!" he said, in a frightened whisper, raising her. "Get up at once!"
"Are you happy—are you happy?" she asked. "Say this one word. Are you happ_ow? Today, this moment? Have you just been with her? What did she say?"
She did not rise from her knees; she would not listen to him; she put he_uestions hurriedly, as though she were pursued.
"I am going away tomorrow, as you bade me—I won't write—so that this is th_ast time I shall see you, the last time! This is really the LAST TIME!"
"Oh, be calm—be calm! Get up!" he entreated, in despair.
She gazed thirstily at him and clutched his hands.
"Good-bye!" she said at last, and rose and left him, very quickly.
The prince noticed that Rogojin had suddenly appeared at her side, and ha_aken her arm and was leading her away.
"Wait a minute, prince," shouted the latter, as he went. "I shall be back i_ive minutes."
He reappeared in five minutes as he had said. The prince was waiting for him.
"I've put her in the carriage," he said; "it has been waiting round the corne_here since ten o'clock. She expected that you would be with THEM all th_vening. I told her exactly what you wrote me. She won't write to the girl an_ore, she promises; and tomorrow she will be off, as you wish. She desired t_ee you for the last time, although you refused, so we've been sitting an_aiting on that bench till you should pass on your way home."
"Did she bring you with her of her own accord?"
"Of course she did!" said Rogojin, showing his teeth; "and I saw for mysel_hat I knew before. You've read her letters, I suppose?"
"Did you read them?" asked the prince, struck by the thought.
"Of course—she showed them to me herself. You are thinking of the razor, eh?
Ha, ha, ha!"
"Oh, she is mad!" cried the prince, wringing his hands. "Who knows? Perhap_he is not so mad after all," said Rogojin, softly, as though thinking aloud.
The prince made no reply.
"Well, good-bye," said Rogojin. "I'm off tomorrow too, you know. Remember m_indly! By-the-by," he added, turning round sharply again, "did you answer he_uestion just now? Are you happy, or not?"
"No, no, no!" cried the prince, with unspeakable sadness.
"Ha, ha! I never supposed you would say 'yes,'" cried Rogojin, laughin_ardonically.