As to the evening party at the Epanchins' at which Princess Bielokonski was t_e present, Varia had reported with accuracy; though she had perhaps expresse_erself too strongly.
The thing was decided in a hurry and with a certain amount of quit_nnecessary excitement, doubtless because "nothing could be done in this hous_ike anywhere else."
The impatience of Lizabetha Prokofievna "to get things settled" explained _ood deal, as well as the anxiety of both parents for the happiness of thei_eloved daughter. Besides, Princess Bielokonski was going away soon, and the_oped that she would take an interest in the prince. They were anxious that h_hould enter society under the auspices of this lady, whose patronage was th_est of recommendations for any young man.
Even if there seems something strange about the match, the general and hi_ife said to each other, the "world" will accept Aglaya's fiance without an_uestion if he is under the patronage of the princess. In any case, the princ_ould have to be "shown" sooner or later; that is, introduced into society, o_hich he had, so far, not the least idea. Moreover, it was only a question o_ small gathering of a few intimate friends. Besides Princess Bielokonski, only one other lady was expected, the wife of a high dignitary. Evgeni_avlovitch, who was to escort the princess, was the only young man.
Muishkin was told of the princess's visit three days beforehand, but nothin_as 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 member_f the family, and from certain hints dropped in conversation he gathered tha_hey 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 o_ind, was quite incapable of realizing that they could be feeling any anxiet_n his account, and for this reason they all looked at him with dread an_neasiness.
In point of fact, he did attach marvellously little importance to th_pproaching event. He was occupied with altogether different thoughts. Aglay_as growing hourly more capricious and gloomy, and this distressed him. Whe_hey 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 no_lease anyone.
Aglaya left the room in a fit of irritation, and it was not until late in th_vening, past eleven, when the prince was taking his departure, that she sai_ word or two to him, privately, as she accompanied him as far as the fron_oor.
"I should like you," she said, "not to come here tomorrow until evening, whe_he 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 ha_ade to the party of tomorrow.
She hated the idea of it, everyone saw that; and she would probably have like_o quarrel about it with her parents, but pride and modesty prevented her fro_roaching 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 he_nxiety; 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 o_omething serious to you, for once in my life?" she asked, angrily. She wa_rritated 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 he_ubject:
"I do not wish to quarrel with them about this; in some things they won't b_easonable. I always did feel a loathing for the laws which seem to guid_amma's conduct at times. I don't speak of father, for he cannot be expecte_o be anything but what he is. Mother is a noble-minded woman, I know; you tr_o suggest anything mean to her, and you'll see! But she is such a slave t_hese miserable creatures! I don't mean old Bielokonski alone. She is _ontemptible old thing, but she is able to twist people round her littl_inger, and I admire that in her, at all events! How mean it all is, and ho_oolish! We were always middle-class, thoroughly middle-class, people. Wh_hould we attempt to climb into the giddy heights of the fashionable world? M_isters are all for it. It's Prince S. they have to thank for poisoning thei_inds. Why are you so glad that Evgenie Pavlovitch is coming?"
"Listen to me, Aglaya," said the prince, "I do believe you are nervous lest _hall make a fool of myself tomorrow at your party?"
"Nervous about you?" Aglaya blushed. "Why should I be nervous about you? Wha_ould it matter to me if you were to make ever such a fool of yourself? Ho_an 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 wa_omorrow 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 _oom as gracefully as you do; where did you learn the art? Do you think yo_an drink a cup of tea decently, when you know everybody is looking at you, o_urpose 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 yo_therwise. Do break SOMETHING at least, in the drawing-room! Upset the Chines_ase, won't you? It's a valuable one; DO break it. Mamma values it, and she'l_o 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 dow_ear 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 min_etting that you'll talk about some lofty subject, something serious an_earned. How delightful, how tactful that will be!"
"I should think it would be very foolish indeed, unless it happened to come i_ppropriately."
"Look here, once for all," cried Aglaya, boiling over, "if I hear you talkin_bout capital punishment, or the economical condition of Russia, or abou_eauty redeeming the world, or anything of that sort, I'll—well, of course _hall laugh and seem very pleased, but I warn you beforehand, don't look me i_he face again! I'm serious now, mind, this time I AM REALLY serious." Sh_ertainly did say this very seriously, so much so, that she looked quit_ifferent from what she usually was, and the prince could not help noticin_he 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 o_yself, 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 befor_ow, you know. I shall dream of it all night now. Why did you say anythin_bout it?"
Aglaya looked blackly at him.
"Do you know what, I had better not come at all tomorrow! I'll plead sick-lis_nd 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 o_urpose for him! Good Lord! What a delightful thing it is to have to do wit_uch a—such a stupid as you are!"
"Well, I'll come, I'll come," interrupted the prince, hastily, "and I'll giv_ou 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 yo_alk 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 quit_ell, I see it, that you are anxious on my account (now, don't be angry), an_t makes me very happy to see it. You wouldn't believe how frightened I am o_isbehaving somehow, and how glad I am of your instructions. But all thi_anic is simply nonsense, you know, Aglaya! I give you my word it is; I am s_leased that you are such a child, such a dear good child. How CHARMING yo_an be if you like, Aglaya."
Aglaya wanted to be angry, of course, but suddenly some quite unexpecte_eeling seized upon her heart, all in a moment.
"And you won't reproach me for all these rude words of mine—som_ay—afterwards?" she asked, of a sudden.
"What an idea! Of course not. And what are you blushing for again? And ther_omes 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 HAV_aid it, but that's not enough, for you didn't believe me. Between us tw_here stands a being who—"
"Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, be quiet!" Aglaya struck in, suddenly, seizin_is 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 ai_f relief and ran away.
The prince was in a fever all night. It was strange, but he had suffered fro_ever for several nights in succession. On this particular night, while i_emi-delirium, he had an idea: what if on the morrow he were to have a fi_efore everybody? The thought seemed to freeze his blood within him. All nigh_e fancied himself in some extraordinary society of strange persons. The wors_f it was that he was talking nonsense; he knew that he ought not to speak a_ll, and yet he talked the whole time; he seemed to be trying to persuade the_ll to something. Evgenie and Hippolyte were among the guests, and appeared t_e great friends.
He awoke towards nine o'clock with a headache, full of confused ideas an_trange impressions. For some reason or other he felt most anxious to se_ogojin, 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 imperfectl_ealized, though acutely felt.
One of these incidents was a visit from Lebedeff. Lebedeff came rathe_arly—before ten—but he was tipsy already. Though the prince was not in a_bservant condition, yet he could not avoid seeing that for at least thre_ays—ever since General Ivolgin had left the house Lebedeff had been behavin_ery badly. He looked untidy and dirty at all times of the day, and it wa_aid that he had begun to rage about in his own house, and that his temper wa_ery bad. As soon as he arrived this morning, he began to hold forth, beatin_is 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," h_oncluded, tragically.
"A slap in the face? From whom? And so early in the morning?"
"Early?" said Lebedeff, sarcastically. "Time counts for nothing, even i_hysical chastisement; but my slap in the face was not physical, it wa_oral."
He suddenly took a seat, very unceremoniously, and began his story. It wa_ery disconnected; the prince frowned, and wished he could get away; bu_uddenly a few words struck him. He sat stiff with wonder—Lebedeff said som_xtraordinary things.
In the first place he began about some letter; the name of Aglaya Ivanovn_ame in. Then suddenly he broke off and began to accuse the prince o_omething; he was apparently offended with him. At first he declared that th_rince had trusted him with his confidences as to "a certain person" (Nastasi_hilipovna), but that of late his friendship had been thrust back into hi_osom, and his innocent question as to "approaching family changes" had bee_urtly put aside, which Lebedeff declared, with tipsy tears, he could no_ear; especially as he knew so much already both from Rogojin and Nastasi_hilipovna and her friend, and from Varvara Ardalionovna, and even from Aglay_vanovna, through his daughter Vera. "And who told Lizabetha Prokofievn_omething in secret, by letter? Who told her all about the movements of _ertain person called Nastasia Philipovna? Who was the anonymous person, eh?
"Surely not you?" cried the prince.
"Just so," said Lebedeff, with dignity; "and only this very morning I hav_ent up a letter to the noble lady, stating that I have a matter of grea_mportance to communicate. She received the letter; I know she got it; and sh_eceived ME, too."
"Have you just seen Lizabetha Prokofievna?" asked the prince, scarcel_elieving his ears.
"Yes, I saw her, and got the said slap in the face as mentioned. She chucke_he letter back to me unopened, and kicked me out of the house, morally, no_hysically, 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 _etter, 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 th_ddress given.
"Just as before, sir, just as before! To a certain person, and from a certai_and. The individual's name who wrote the letter is to be represented by th_etter 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 sam_hing. Mr. Hippolyte has had letters, too, and all from the individual whos_ame begins with an A.," smirked Lebedeff, with a hideous grin.
As he kept jumping from subject to subject, and forgetting what he had begu_o 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 ha_anaged to steal the present letter from Vera, and had himself gone over t_izabetha Prokofievna with some idea in his head. So the prince concluded a_ast.
"You are mad!" he cried, indignantly.
"Not quite, esteemed prince," replied Lebedeff, with some acerbity. "I confes_ thought of doing you the service of handing the letter over to yourself, bu_ decided that it would pay me better to deliver it up to the noble lad_foresaid, 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 orde_o fix a meeting for eight o'clock this morning, I signed it 'your secre_orrespondent.' They let me in at once—very quickly—by the back door, and th_oble lady received me."
"Well? Go on."
"Oh, well, when I saw her she almost punched my head, as I say; in fact s_early that one might almost say she did punch my head. She threw the lette_n my face; she seemed to reflect first, as if she would have liked to kee_t, but thought better of it and threw it in my face instead. 'If anybody ca_ave been such a fool as to trust a man like you to deliver the letter,' say_he,' take it and deliver it! 'Hey! she was grandly indignant. A fierce, fier_ady 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 th_atter 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 wa_ut 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'l_and it over myself."
"Wouldn't it be better, esteemed prince, wouldn't it be better—to—don't yo_now—"
Lebedeff made a strange and very expressive grimace; he twisted about in hi_hair, 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, mos_onfidentially and mysteriously.
The prince jumped up so furiously that Lebedeff ran towards the door; havin_ained which strategic position, however, he stopped and looked back to see i_e 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 onc_ore, 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 di_ou write anonymously to worry so noble and generous a lady? Why should no_glaya Ivanovna write a note to whomever she pleases? What did you mean t_omplain 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. No_'m entirely yours again, your slave; hang me if you like!"
"Did you go before Lizabetha Prokofievna in your present condition?" inquire_he prince.
"No—oh no, fresher—more the correct card. I only became this like after th_umiliation I suffered there,
"Well—that'll do; now leave me."
This injunction had to be repeated several times before the man could b_ersuaded to move. Even then he turned back at the door, came as far as th_iddle of the room, and there went through his mysterious motions designed t_onvey the suggestion that the prince should open the letter. He did not dar_ut 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 an_lear, and that was that poor Aglaya must be in a state of great distress an_ndecision and mental torment ("from jealousy," the prince whispered t_imself). Undoubtedly in this inexperienced, but hot and proud little head, there were all sorts of plans forming, wild and impossible plans, maybe; an_he idea of this so frightened the prince that he could not make up his min_hat 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 leas_egree alarmed about Aglaya writing such a letter; he could trust her. What h_id 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 delive_t. Indeed, he went so far as to leave the house and walk up the road, bu_hanged his mind when he had nearly reached Ptitsin's door. However, he ther_uckily met Colia, and commissioned him to deliver the letter to his brothe_s if direct from Aglaya. Colia asked no questions but simply delivered it, and Gania consequently had no suspicion that it had passed through so man_ands.
Arrived home again, the prince sent for Vera Lebedeff and told her as much a_as necessary, in order to relieve her mind, for she had been in a dreadfu_tate of anxiety since she had missed the letter. She heard with horror tha_er father had taken it. Muishkin learned from her that she had on severa_ccasions performed secret missions both for Aglaya and for Rogojin, without, however, having had the slightest idea that in so doing she might injure th_rince 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 th_eneral was ill, he could hardly take the news in.
However, when he did master the fact, it acted upon him as a tonic b_ompletely distracting his attention. He went at once to Nina Alexandrovna's, whither the general had been carried, and stayed there until the evening. H_ould do no good, but there are people whom to have near one is a blessing a_uch times. Colia was in an almost hysterical state; he cried continuously, but was running about all day, all the same; fetching doctors, of whom h_ollected three; going to the chemist's, and so on.
The general was brought round to some extent, but the doctors declared that h_ould not be said to be out of danger. Varia and Nina Alexandrovna never lef_he sick man's bedside; Gania was excited and distressed, but would not g_pstairs, and seemed afraid to look at the patient. He wrung his hands whe_he prince spoke to him, and said that "such a misfortune at such a moment"
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; h_ad been asleep ever since his interview with the prince in the morning. H_as quite sober now, and cried with real sincerity over the sic_eneral—mourning for him as though he were his own brother. He blamed himsel_loud, but did not explain why. He repeated over and over again to Nin_lexandrovna that he alone was to blame—no one else—but that he had acted ou_f "pure amiable curiosity," and that "the deceased," as he insisted upo_alling 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 on_f immense solace in the present crisis.
Nina Alexandrovna—seeing his sincerity of feeling—said at last, and withou_he faintest suspicion of reproach in her voice: "Come, come—don't cry! Go_ill forgive you!"
Lebedeff was so impressed by these words, and the tone in which they wer_poken, that he could not leave Nina Alexandrovna all the evening—in fact, fo_everal days. Till the general's death, indeed, he spent almost all his tim_t his side.
Twice during the day a messenger came to Nina Alexandrovna from the Epanchin_o inquire after the invalid.
When—late in the evening—the prince made his appearance in Lizabeth_rokofievna's drawing-room, he found it full of guests. Mrs. Epanchi_uestioned him very fully about the general as soon as he appeared; and whe_ld Princess Bielokonski wished to know "who this general was, and who wa_ina Alexandrovna," she proceeded to explain in a manner which pleased th_rince very much.
He himself, when relating the circumstances of the general's illness t_izabetha Prokofievna, "spoke beautifully," as Aglaya's sisters declare_fterwards—"modestly, quietly, without gestures or too many words, and wit_reat dignity." He had entered the room with propriety and grace, and he wa_erfectly dressed; he not only did not "fall down on the slippery floor," a_e had expressed it, but evidently made a very favourable impression upon th_ssembled guests.
As for his own impression on entering the room and taking his seat, h_nstantly remarked that the company was not in the least such as Aglaya'_ords had led him to fear, and as he had dreamed of—in nightmare form—al_ight.
This was the first time in his life that he had seen a little corner of wha_as 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 al_hese people must have been born on purpose to be together! It seemed to hi_hat the Epanchins were not having a party at all; that these people must hav_een here always, and that he himself was one of them—returned among the_fter a long absence, but one of them, naturally and indisputably.
It never struck him that all this refined simplicity and nobility and wit an_ersonal dignity might possibly be no more than an exquisite artistic polish.
The majority of the guests—who were somewhat empty-headed, after all, in spit_f their aristocratic bearing—never guessed, in their self-satisfie_omposure, that much of their superiority was mere veneer, which indeed the_ad adopted unconsciously and by inheritance.
The prince would never so much as suspect such a thing in the delight of hi_irst impression.
He saw, for instance, that one important dignitary, old enough to be hi_randfather, broke off his own conversation in order to listen to HIM—a youn_nd inexperienced man; and not only listened, but seemed to attach value t_is opinion, and was kind and amiable, and yet they were strangers and ha_ever seen each other before. Perhaps what most appealed to the prince'_mpressionability was the refinement of the old man's courtesy towards him.
Perhaps the soil of his susceptible nature was really predisposed to receive _leasant impression.
Meanwhile all these people-though friends of the family and of each other to _ertain extent—were very far from being such intimate friends of the famil_nd of each other as the prince concluded. There were some present who neve_ould think of considering the Epanchins their equals. There were even som_ho hated one another cordially. For instance, old Princess Bielokonski ha_ll her life despised the wife of the "dignitary," while the latter was ver_ar from loving Lizabetha Prokofievna. The dignitary himself had been Genera_panchin's protector from his youth up; and the general considered him s_ajestic a personage that he would have felt a hearty contempt for himself i_e 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 Olympi_od! There were others present who had not met for years, and who had n_eeling whatever for each other, unless it were dislike; and yet they me_onight as though they had seen each other but yesterday in some friendly an_ntimate assembly of kindred spirits.
It was not a large party, however. Besides Princess Bielokonski and the ol_ignitary (who was really a great man) and his wife, there was an old militar_eneral—a count or baron with a German name, a man reputed to possess grea_nowledge and administrative ability. He was one of those Olympia_dministrators who know everything except Russia, pronounce a word o_xtraordinary wisdom, admired by all, about once in five years, and, afte_eing 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 al_reatness. This general was Ivan Fedorovitch's immediate superior in th_ervice; and it pleased the latter to look upon him also as a patron. On th_ther 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 th_lightest reason for the change.
Another guest was an elderly, important-looking gentleman, a distant relativ_f Lizabetha Prokofievna's. This gentleman was rich, held a good position, wa_ great talker, and had the reputation of being "one of the dissatisfied,"
though not belonging to the dangerous sections of that class. He had th_anners, 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 intende_t no distant date to offer the advantages of his hand and heart to Alexandra.
Besides the elevated and more solid individuals enumerated, there were presen_ few younger though not less elegant guests. Besides Prince S. and Evgeni_avlovitch, we must name the eminent and fascinating Prince N.—once th_anquisher of female hearts all over Europe. This gentleman was no longer i_he first bloom of youth—he was forty-five, but still very handsome. He wa_ell off, and lived, as a rule, abroad, and was noted as a good teller o_tories. Then came a few guests belonging to a lower stratum of society—peopl_ho, like the Epanchins themselves, moved only occasionally in this exalte_phere. The Epanchins liked to draft among their more elevated guests a fe_icked representatives of this lower stratum, and Lizabetha Prokofievn_eceived much praise for this practice, which proved, her friends said, tha_he was a woman of tact. The Epanchins prided themselves upon the good opinio_eople held of them.
One of the representatives of the middle-class present today was a colonel o_ngineers, a very serious man and a great friend of Prince S., who ha_ntroduced him to the Epanchins. He was extremely silent in society, an_isplayed on the forefinger of his right hand a large ring, probably bestowe_pon him for services of some sort. There was also a poet, German by name, bu_ Russian poet; very presentable, and even handsome-the sort of man one coul_ring into society with impunity. This gentleman belonged to a German famil_f decidedly bourgeois origin, but he had a knack of acquiring the patronag_f "big-wigs," and of retaining their favour. He had translated some grea_erman poem into Russian verse, and claimed to have been a friend of a famou_ussian poet, since dead. (It is strange how great a multitude of literar_eople there are who have had the advantages of friendship with some great ma_f their own profession who is, unfortunately, dead.) The dignitary's wife ha_ntroduced this worthy to the Epanchins. This lady posed as the patroness o_iterary people, and she certainly had succeeded in obtaining pensions for _ew 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 tha_he was a very young wife for such an elderly husband as the dignitary. Sh_ad been a beauty in her day and still loved, as many ladies of forty-five d_ove, 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 an_ranslations were dedicated to her by her proteges, and a few of thes_alented individuals had published some of their own letters to her, upon ver_eighty subjects.
This, then, was the society that the prince accepted at once as true coin, a_ure gold without alloy.
It so happened, however, that on this particular evening all these good peopl_ere in excellent humour and highly pleased with themselves. Every one of the_elt that they were doing the Epanchins the greatest possible honour by thei_resence. But alas! the prince never suspected any such subtleties! Fo_nstance, he had no suspicion of the fact that the Epanchins, having in thei_ind so important a step as the marriage of their daughter, would never thin_f presuming to take it without having previously "shown off" the propose_usband to the dignitary—the recognized patron of the family. The latter, too, though he would probably have received news of a great disaster to th_panchin family with perfect composure, would nevertheless have considered i_ personal offence if they had dared to marry their daughter without hi_dvice, or we might almost say, his leave.
The amiable and undoubtedly witty Prince N. could not but feel that he was a_ sun, risen for one night only to shine upon the Epanchin drawing-room. H_ccounted them immeasurably his inferiors, and it was this feeling whic_aused his special amiability and delightful ease and grace towards them. H_new very well that he must tell some story this evening for the edificatio_f 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 ye_ome across so wonderful a humorist, or such remarkable brilliancy as wa_hown 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 t_eath of it. It was only in the innocent Epanchin household that it passed fo_ new and brilliant tale—as a sudden and striking reminiscence of a splendi_nd talented man.
Even the German poet, though as amiable as possible, felt that he was doin_he 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 an_ee the shabby lining.
Aglaya had not foreseen that particular calamity. She herself looke_onderfully beautiful this evening. All three sisters were dressed ver_astefully, and their hair was done with special care.
Aglaya sat next to Evgenie Pavlovitch, and laughed and talked to him with a_nusual display of friendliness. Evgenie himself behaved rather more sedatel_han usual, probably out of respect to the dignitary. Evgenie had been know_n society for a long while. He had appeared at the Epanchins' today wit_rape on his hat, and Princess Bielokonski had commended this action on hi_art. Not every society man would have worn crape for "such an uncle."
Lizabetha Prokofievna had liked it also, but was too preoccupied to take muc_otice. The prince remarked that Aglaya looked attentively at him two or thre_imes, and seemed to be satisfied with his behaviour.
Little by little he became very happy indeed. All his late anxieties an_pprehensions (after his conversation with Lebedeff) now appeared like so man_ad dreams—impossible, and even laughable.
He did not speak much, only answering such questions as were put to him, an_radually settled down into unbroken silence, listening to what went on, an_teeped 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, i_as accidentally, in response to a question, and apparently without an_pecial object.