THE prince was very nervous as he reached the outer door; but he did his bes_o encourage himself with the reflection that the worst thing that coul_appen to him would be that he would not be received, or, perhaps, received, then laughed at for coming.
But there was another question, which terrified him considerably, and tha_as: what was he going to do when he DID get in? And to this question he coul_ashion no satisfactory reply.
If only he could find an opportunity of coming close up to Nastasia Philipovn_nd saying to her: "Don't ruin yourself by marrying this man. He does not lov_ou, he only loves your money. He told me so himself, and so did Aglay_vanovna, and I have come on purpose to warn you"—but even that did not see_uite a legitimate or practicable thing to do. Then, again, there was anothe_elicate question, to which he could not find an answer; dared not, in fact, think of it; but at the very idea of which he trembled and blushed. However, in spite of all his fears and heart-quakings he went in, and asked fo_astasia Philipovna.
Nastasia occupied a medium-sized, but distinctly tasteful, flat, beautifull_urnished and arranged. At one period of these five years of Petersburg life, Totski had certainly not spared his expenditure upon her. He had calculate_pon her eventual love, and tried to tempt her with a lavish outlay upo_omforts and luxuries, knowing too well how easily the heart accustoms itsel_o comforts, and how difficult it is to tear one's self away from luxurie_hich have become habitual and, little by little, indispensable.
Nastasia did not reject all this, she even loved her comforts and luxuries, but, strangely enough, never became, in the least degree, dependent upon them, and always gave the impression that she could do just as well without them. I_act, she went so far as to inform Totski on several occasions that such wa_he case, which the latter gentleman considered a very unpleasan_ommunication indeed.
But, of late, Totski had observed many strange and original features an_haracteristics in Nastasia, which he had neither known nor reckoned upon i_ormer times, and some of these fascinated him, even now, in spite of the fac_hat all his old calculations with regard to her were long ago cast to th_inds.
A maid opened the door for the prince (Nastasia's servants were all females) and, to his surprise, received his request to announce him to her mistres_ithout any astonishment. Neither his dirty boots, nor his wide-brimmed hat, nor his sleeveless cloak, nor his evident confusion of manner, produced th_east impression upon her. She helped him off with his cloak, and begged hi_o wait a moment in the ante-room while she announced him.
The company assembled at Nastasia Philipovna's consisted of none but her mos_ntimate friends, and formed a very small party in comparison with her usua_atherings on this anniversary.
In the first place there were present Totski, and General Epanchin. They wer_oth highly amiable, but both appeared to be labouring under a half-hidde_eeling of anxiety as to the result of Nastasia's deliberations with regard t_ania, which result was to be made public this evening.
Then, of course, there was Gania who was by no means so amiable as his elders, but stood apart, gloomy, and miserable, and silent. He had determined not t_ring Varia with him; but Nastasia had not even asked after her, though n_ooner had he arrived than she had reminded him of the episode between himsel_nd the prince. The general, who had heard nothing of it before, began t_isten with some interest, while Gania, drily, but with perfect candour, wen_hrough the whole history, including the fact of his apology to the prince. H_inished by declaring that the prince was a most extraordinary man, an_oodness knows why he had been considered an idiot hitherto, for he was ver_ar from being one.
Nastasia listened to all this with great interest; but the conversation soo_urned to Rogojin and his visit, and this theme proved of the greates_ttraction to both Totski and the general.
Ptitsin was able to afford some particulars as to Rogojin's conduct since th_fternoon. He declared that he had been busy finding money for the latter eve_ince, and up to nine o'clock, Rogojin having declared that he must absolutel_ave a hundred thousand roubles by the evening. He added that Rogojin wa_runk, of course; but that he thought the money would be forthcoming, for th_xcited and intoxicated rapture of the fellow impelled him to give an_nterest or premium that was asked of him, and there were several other_ngaged in beating up the money, also.
All this news was received by the company with somewhat gloomy interest.
Nastasia was silent, and would not say what she thought about it. Gania wa_qually uncommunicative. The general seemed the most anxious of all, an_ecidedly uneasy. The present of pearls which he had prepared with so much jo_n the morning had been accepted but coldly, and Nastasia had smiled rathe_isagreeably as she took it from him. Ferdishenko was the only person presen_n good spirits.
Totski himself, who had the reputation of being a capital talker, and wa_sually the life and soul of these entertainments, was as silent as any o_his occasion, and sat in a state of, for him, most uncommon perturbation.
The rest of the guests (an old tutor or schoolmaster, goodness knows wh_nvited; a young man, very timid, and shy and silent; a rather loud woman o_bout forty, apparently an actress; and a very pretty, well-dressed Germa_ady who hardly said a word all the evening) not only had no gift fo_nlivening the proceedings, but hardly knew what to say for themselves whe_ddressed. Under these circumstances the arrival of the prince came almost a_ godsend.
The announcement of his name gave rise to some surprise and to some smiles, especially when it became evident, from Nastasia's astonished look, that sh_ad not thought of inviting him. But her astonishment once over, Nastasi_howed such satisfaction that all prepared to greet the prince with cordia_miles of welcome.
"Of course," remarked General Epanchin, "he does this out of pure innocence.
It's a little dangerous, perhaps, to encourage this sort of freedom; but it i_ather a good thing that he has arrived just at this moment. He may enliven u_ little with his originalities."
"Especially as he asked himself," said Ferdishenko.
"What's that got to do with it?" asked the general, who loathed Ferdishenko.
"Why, he must pay toll for his entrance," explained the latter.
"H'm! Prince Muishkin is not Ferdishenko," said the general, impatiently. Thi_orthy gentleman could never quite reconcile himself to the idea of meetin_erdishenko in society, and on an equal footing.
"Oh general, spare Ferdishenko!" replied the other, smiling. "I have specia_rivileges."
"What do you mean by special privileges?"
"Once before I had the honour of stating them to the company. I will repea_he explanation to-day for your excellency's benefit. You see, excellency, al_he world is witty and clever except myself. I am neither. As a kind o_ompensation I am allowed to tell the truth, for it is a well-known fact tha_nly stupid people tell 'the truth. Added to this, I am a spiteful man, jus_ecause I am not clever. If I am offended or injured I bear it quite patientl_ntil the man injuring me meets with some misfortune. Then I remember, an_ake my revenge. I return the injury sevenfold, as Ivan Petrovitch Ptitsi_ays. (Of course he never does so himself.) Excellency, no doubt you recollec_ryloff's fable, 'The Lion and the Ass'? Well now, that's you and I. Tha_able was written precisely for us."
"You seem to be talking nonsense again, Ferdishenko," growled the general.
"What is the matter, excellency? I know how to keep my place. When I said jus_ow that we, you and I, were the lion and the ass of Kryloff's fable, o_ourse it is understood that I take the role of the ass. Your excellency i_he lion of which the fable remarks:
'A mighty lion, terror of the woods, Was shorn of his great prowess by ol_ge.'
And I, your excellency, am the ass."
"I am of your opinion on that last point," said Ivan Fedorovitch, with ill- concealed irritation.
All this was no doubt extremely coarse, and moreover it was premeditated, bu_fter all Ferdishenko had persuaded everyone to accept him as a buffoon.
"If I am admitted and tolerated here," he had said one day, "it is simpl_ecause I talk in this way. How can anyone possibly receive such a man as _m? I quite understand. Now, could I, a Ferdishenko, be allowed to si_houlder to shoulder with a clever man like Afanasy Ivanovitch? There is on_xplanation, only one. I am given the position because it is so entirel_nconceivable!"
But these vulgarities seemed to please Nastasia Philipovna, although too ofte_hey were both rude and offensive. Those who wished to go to her house wer_orced to put up with Ferdishenko. Possibly the latter was not mistaken i_magining that he was received simply in order to annoy Totski, who dislike_im extremely. Gania also was often made the butt of the jester's sarcasms, who used this method of keeping in Nastasia Philipovna's good graces.
"The prince will begin by singing us a fashionable ditty," remarke_erdishenko, and looked at the mistress of the house, to see what she woul_ay.
"I don't think so, Ferdishenko; please be quiet," answered Nastasia Philipovn_ryly.
"A-ah! if he is to be under special patronage, I withdraw my claws."
But Nastasia Philipovna had now risen and advanced to meet the prince.
"I was so sorry to have forgotten to ask you to come, when I saw you," sh_aid, "and I am delighted to be able to thank you personally now, and t_xpress my pleasure at your resolution."
So saying she gazed into his eyes, longing to see whether she could make an_uess as to the explanation of his motive in coming to her house. The princ_ould very likely have made some reply to her kind words, but he was s_azzled by her appearance that he could not speak.
Nastasia noticed this with satisfaction. She was in full dress this evening; and her appearance was certainly calculated to impress all beholders. She too_is hand and led him towards her other guests. But just before they reache_he drawing-room door, the prince stopped her, and hurriedly and in grea_gitation whispered to her:
"You are altogether perfection; even your pallor and thinness are perfect; on_ould not wish you otherwise. I did so wish to come and see you. I—forgive me, please—"
"Don't apologize," said Nastasia, laughing; "you spoil the whole originalit_f the thing. I think what they say about you must be true, that you are s_riginal.—So you think me perfection, do you?"
"H'm! Well, you may be a good reader of riddles but you are wrong THERE, a_ll events. I'll remind you of this, tonight."
Nastasia introduced the prince to her guests, to most of whom he was alread_nown.
Totski immediately made some amiable remark. Al seemed to brighten up at once, and the conversation became general. Nastasia made the prince sit down next t_erself.
"Dear me, there's nothing so very curious about the prince dropping in, afte_ll," remarked Ferdishenko.
"It's quite a clear case," said the hitherto silent Gania. "I have watched th_rince almost all day, ever since the moment when he first saw Nastasi_hilipovna's portrait, at General Epanchin's. I remember thinking at the tim_hat I am now pretty sure of; and what, I may say in passing, the princ_onfessed to myself."
Gania said all this perfectly seriously, and without the slightest appearanc_f joking; indeed, he seemed strangely gloomy.
"I did not confess anything to you," said the prince, blushing. "I onl_nswered your question."
"Bravo! That's frank, at any rate!" shouted Ferdishenko, and there was genera_aughter.
"Oh prince, prince! I never should have thought it of you;" said Genera_panchin. "And I imagined you a philosopher! Oh, you silent fellows!"
"Judging from the fact that the prince blushed at this innocent joke, like _oung girl, I should think that he must, as an honourable man, harbour th_oblest intentions," said the old toothless schoolmaster, most unexpectedly; he had not so much as opened his mouth before. This remark provoked genera_irth, and the old fellow himself laughed loudest of the lot, but ended with _tupendous fit of coughing.
Nastasia Philipovna, who loved originality and drollery of all kinds, wa_pparently very fond of this old man, and rang the bell for more tea to sto_is coughing. It was now half-past ten o'clock.
"Gentlemen, wouldn't you like a little champagne now?" she asked. "I have i_ll ready; it will cheer us up—do now—no ceremony!"
This invitation to drink, couched, as it was, in such informal terms, cam_ery strangely from Nastasia Philipovna. Her usual entertainments were no_uite like this; there was more style about them. However, the wine was no_efused; each guest took a glass excepting Gania, who drank nothing.
It was extremely difficult to account for Nastasia's strange condition o_ind, which became more evident each moment, and which none could avoi_oticing.
She took her glass, and vowed she would empty it three times that evening. Sh_as hysterical, and laughed aloud every other minute with no apparen_eason—the next moment relapsing into gloom and thoughtfulness.
Some of her guests suspected that she must be ill; but concluded at last tha_he was expecting something, for she continued to look at her watc_mpatiently and unceasingly; she was most absent and strange.
"You seem to be a little feverish tonight," said the actress.
"Yes; I feel quite ill. I have been obliged to put on this shawl—I feel s_old," replied Nastasia. She certainly had grown very pale, and every now an_hen she tried to suppress a trembling in her limbs.
"Had we not better allow our hostess to retire?" asked Totski of the general.
"Not at all, gentlemen, not at all! Your presence is absolutely necessary t_e tonight," said Nastasia, significantly.
As most of those present were aware that this evening a certain very importan_ecision was to be taken, these words of Nastasia Philipovna's appeared to b_raught with much hidden interest. The general and Totski exchanged looks; Gania fidgeted convulsively in his chair.
"Let's play at some game!" suggested the actress.
"I know a new and most delightful game, added Ferdishenko.
"What is it?" asked the actress.
"Well, when we tried it we were a party of people, like this, for instance; and somebody proposed that each of us, without leaving his place at the table, should relate something about himself. It had to be something that he reall_nd honestly considered the very worst action he had ever committed in hi_ife. But he was to be honest—that was the chief point! He wasn't to b_llowed to lie."
"What an extraordinary idea!" said the general.
"That's the beauty of it, general!"
"It's a funny notion," said Totski, "and yet quite natural—it's only a new wa_f boasting."
"Perhaps that is just what was so fascinating about it."
"Why, it would be a game to cry over—not to laugh at!" said the actress.
"Did it succeed?" asked Nastasia Philipovna. "Come, let's try it, let's tr_t; we really are not quite so jolly as we might be—let's try it! We may lik_t; it's original, at all events!"
"Yes," said Ferdishenko; "it's a good idea—come along—the men begin. Of cours_o one need tell a story if he prefers to be disobliging. We must draw lots!
Throw your slips of paper, gentlemen, into this hat, and the prince shall dra_or turns. It's a very simple game; all you have to do is to tell the story o_he worst action of your life. It's as simple as anything. I'll prompt anyon_ho forgets the rules!"
No one liked the idea much. Some smiled, some frowned some objected, bu_aintly, not wishing to oppose Nastasia's wishes; for this new idea seemed t_e rather well received by her. She was still in an excited, hysterical state, laughing convulsively at nothing and everything. Her eyes were blazing, an_er cheeks showed two bright red spots against the white. The melanchol_ppearance of some of her guests seemed to add to her sarcastic humour, an_erhaps the very cynicism and cruelty of the game proposed by Ferdishenk_leased her. At all events she was attracted by the idea, and gradually he_uests came round to her side; the thing was original, at least, and migh_urn out to be amusing. "And supposing it's something that one—one can't spea_bout before ladies?" asked the timid and silent young man.
"Why, then of course, you won't say anything about it. As if there are no_lenty of sins to your score without the need of those!" said Ferdishenko.
"But I really don't know which of my actions is the worst," said the livel_ctress.
"Ladies are exempted if they like."
"And how are you to know that one isn't lying? And if one lies the whole poin_f the game is lost," said Gania.
"Oh, but think how delightful to hear how one's friends lie! Besides yo_eedn't be afraid, Gania; everybody knows what your worst action is withou_he need of any lying on your part. Only think, gentlemen,"—and Ferdishenk_ere grew quite enthusiastic, "only think with what eyes we shall observe on_nother tomorrow, after our tales have been told!"
"But surely this is a joke, Nastasia Philipovna?" asked Totski. "You don'_eally mean us to play this game."
"Whoever is afraid of wolves had better not go into the wood," said Nastasia, smiling.
"But, pardon me, Mr. Ferdishenko, is it possible to make a game out of thi_ind of thing?" persisted Totski, growing more and more uneasy. "I assure yo_t can't be a success."
"And why not? Why, the last time I simply told straight off about how I stol_hree roubles."
"Perhaps so; but it is hardly possible that you told it so that it seemed lik_ruth, or so that you were believed. And, as Gavrila Ardalionovitch has said, the least suggestion of a falsehood takes all point out of the game. It seem_o me that sincerity, on the other hand, is only possible if combined with _ind of bad taste that would be utterly out of place here."
"How subtle you are, Afanasy Ivanovitch! You astonish me," cried Ferdishenko.
"You will remark, gentleman, that in saying that I could not recount the stor_f my theft so as to be believed, Afanasy Ivanovitch has very ingeniousl_mplied that I am not capable of thieving—(it would have been bad taste to sa_o openly); and all the time he is probably firmly convinced, in his own mind, that I am very well capable of it! But now, gentlemen, to business! Put i_our slips, ladies and gentlemen—is yours in, Mr. Totski? So—then we are al_eady; now prince, draw, please." The prince silently put his hand into th_at, and drew the names. Ferdishenko was first, then Ptitsin, then th_eneral, Totski next, his own fifth, then Gania, and so on; the ladies did no_raw.
"Oh, dear! oh, dear!" cried Ferdishenko. "I did so hope the prince would com_ut first, and then the general. Well, gentlemen, I suppose I must set a goo_xample! What vexes me much is that I am such an insignificant creature tha_t matters nothing to anybody whether I have done bad actions or not! Besides, which am I to choose? It's an embarras de richesse. Shall I tell how I becam_ thief on one occasion only, to convince Afanasy Ivanovitch that it i_ossible to steal without being a thief?"
"Do go on, Ferdishenko, and don't make unnecessary preface, or you'll neve_inish," said Nastasia Philipovna. All observed how irritable and cross sh_ad become since her last burst of laughter; but none the less obstinately di_he stick to her absurd whim about this new game. Totski sat looking miserabl_nough. The general lingered over his champagne, and seemed to be thinking o_ome story for the time when his turn should come.