It was seven in the evening, and the prince was just preparing to go out for a walk in the park, when suddenly Mrs. Epanchin appeared on the terrace.
"In the first place, don't dare to suppose," she began, "that I am going to apologize. Nonsense! You were entirely to blame."
The prince remained silent.
"Were you to blame, or not?"
"No, certainly not, no more than yourself, though at first I thought I was."
"Oh, very well, let's sit down, at all events, for I don't intend to stand up all day. And remember, if you say, one word about 'mischievous urchins,' I shall go away and break with you altogether. Now then, did you, or did you not, send a letter to Aglaya, a couple of months or so ago, about Easter-tide?"
"What for? What was your object? Show me the letter." Mrs. Epanchin's eyes flashed; she was almost trembling with impatience.
"I have not got the letter," said the prince, timidly, extremely surprised at the turn the conversation had taken. "If anyone has it, if it still exists, Aglaya Ivanovna must have it."
"No finessing, please. What did you write about?"
"I am not finessing, and I am not in the least afraid of telling you; but I don't see the slightest reason why I should not have written."
"Be quiet, you can talk afterwards! What was the letter about? Why are you blushing?"
The prince was silent. At last he spoke.
"I don't understand your thoughts, Lizabetha Prokofievna; but I can see that the fact of my having written is for some reason repugnant to you. You must admit that I have a perfect right to refuse to answer your questions; but, in order to show you that I am neither ashamed of the letter, nor sorry that I wrote it, and that I am not in the least inclined to blush about it" (here the prince's blushes redoubled), "I will repeat the substance of my letter, for I think I know it almost by heart."
So saying, the prince repeated the letter almost word for word, as he had written it.
"My goodness, what utter twaddle, and what may all this nonsense have signified, pray? If it had any meaning at all!" said Mrs. Epanchin, cuttingly, after having listened with great attention.
"I really don't absolutely know myself; I know my feeling was very sincere. I had moments at that time full of life and hope."
"What sort of hope?"
"It is difficult to explain, but certainly not the hopes you have in your mind. Hopes—well, in a word, hopes for the future, and a feeling of joy that there, at all events, I was not entirely a stranger and a foreigner. I felt an ecstasy in being in my native land once more; and one sunny morning I took up a pen and wrote her that letter, but why to her, I don't quite know. Sometimes one longs to have a friend near, and I evidently felt the need of one then," added the prince, and paused.
"Are you in love with her?"
"N-no! I wrote to her as to a sister; I signed myself her brother."
"Oh yes, of course, on purpose! I quite understand."
"It is very painful to me to answer these questions, Lizabetha Prokofievna."
"I dare say it is; but that's no affair of mine. Now then, assure me truly as before Heaven, are you lying to me or not?"
"No, I am not lying."
"Are you telling the truth when you say you are not in love?"
"I believe it is the absolute truth."
"'I believe,' indeed! Did that mischievous urchin give it to her?"
"I asked Nicolai Ardalionovitch..."
"The urchin! the urchin!" interrupted Lizabetha Prokofievna in an angry voice. "I do not want to know if it were Nicolai Ardalionovitch! The urchin!"
"The urchin, I tell you!"
"No, it was not the urchin: it was Nicolai Ardalionovitch," said the prince very firmly, but without raising his voice.
"Well, all right! All right, my dear! I shall put that down to your account."
She was silent a moment to get breath, and to recover her composure.
"Well!—and what's the meaning of the 'poor knight,' eh?"
"I don't know in the least; I wasn't present when the joke was made. It is a joke. I suppose, and that's all."
"Well, that's a comfort, at all events. You don't suppose she could take any interest in you, do you? Why, she called you an 'idiot' herself."
"I think you might have spared me that," murmured the prince reproachfully, almost in a whisper.
"Don't be angry; she is a wilful, mad, spoilt girl. If she likes a person she will pitch into him, and chaff him. I used to be just such another. But for all that you needn't flatter yourself, my boy; she is not for you. I don't believe it, and it is not to be. I tell you so at once, so that you may take proper precautions. Now, I want to hear you swear that you are not married to that woman?"
"Lizabetha Prokofievna, what are you thinking of?" cried the prince, almost leaping to his feet in amazement.
"Why? You very nearly were, anyhow."
"Yes—I nearly was," whispered the prince, hanging his head.
"Well then, have you come here for her? Are you in love with her? With that creature?"
"I did not come to marry at all," replied the prince.
"Is there anything you hold sacred?"
"Then swear by it that you did not come here to marry her!"
"I'll swear it by whatever you please."
"I believe you. You may kiss me; I breathe freely at last. But you must know, my dear friend, Aglaya does not love you, and she shall never be your wife while I am out of my grave. So be warned in time. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, I hear."
The prince flushed up so much that he could not look her in the face.
"I have waited for you with the greatest impatience (not that you were worth it). Every night I have drenched my pillow with tears, not for you, my friend, not for you, don't flatter yourself! I have my own grief, always the same, always the same. But I'll tell you why I have been awaiting you so impatiently, because I believe that Providence itself sent you to be a friend and a brother to me. I haven't a friend in the world except Princess Bielokonski, and she is growing as stupid as a sheep from old age. Now then, tell me, yes or no? Do you know why she called out from her carriage the other night?"
"I give you my word of honour that I had nothing to do with the matter and know nothing about it."
"Very well, I believe you. I have my own ideas about it. Up to yesterday morning I thought it was really Evgenie Pavlovitch who was to blame; now I cannot help agreeing with the others. But why he was made such a fool of I cannot understand. However, he is not going to marry Aglaya, I can tell you that. He may be a very excellent fellow, but—so it shall be. I was not at all sure of accepting him before, but now I have quite made up my mind that I won't have him. 'Put me in my coffin first and then into my grave, and then you may marry my daughter to whomsoever you please,' so I said to the general this very morning. You see how I trust you, my boy."
"Yes, I see and understand."
Mrs. Epanchin gazed keenly into the prince's eyes. She was anxious to see what impression the news as to Evgenie Pavlovitch had made upon him.
"Do you know anything about Gavrila Ardalionovitch?" she asked at last.
"Oh yes, I know a good deal."
"Did you know he had communications with Aglaya?"
"No, I didn't," said the prince, trembling a little, and in great agitation. "You say Gavrila Ardalionovitch has private communications with Aglaya?—Impossible!"
"Only quite lately. His sister has been working like a rat to clear the way for him all the winter."
"I don't believe it!" said the prince abruptly, after a short pause. "Had it been so I should have known long ago."
"Oh, of course, yes; he would have come and wept out his secret on your bosom. Oh, you simpleton—you simpleton! Anyone can deceive you and take you in like a—like a,—aren't you ashamed to trust him? Can't you see that he humbugs you just as much as ever he pleases?"
"I know very well that he does deceive me occasionally, and he knows that I know it, but—" The prince did not finish his sentence.
"And that's why you trust him, eh? So I should have supposed. Good Lord, was there ever such a man as you? Tfu! and are you aware, sir, that this Gania, or his sister Varia, have brought her into correspondence with Nastasia Philipovna?"
"Brought whom?" cried Muishkin.
"I don't believe it! It's impossible! What object could they have?" He jumped up from his chair in his excitement.
"Nor do I believe it, in spite of the proofs. The girl is self-willed and fantastic, and insane! She's wicked, wicked! I'll repeat it for a thousand years that she's wicked; they all are, just now, all my daughters, even that 'wet hen' Alexandra. And yet I don't believe it. Because I don't choose to believe it, perhaps; but I don't. Why haven't you been?" she turned on the prince suddenly. "Why didn't you come near us all these three days, eh?"
The prince began to give his reasons, but she interrupted him again.
"Everybody takes you in and deceives you; you went to town yesterday. I dare swear you went down on your knees to that rogue, and begged him to accept your ten thousand roubles!"
"I never thought of doing any such thing. I have not seen him, and he is not a rogue, in my opinion. I have had a letter from him."
"Show it me!"
The prince took a paper from his pocket-book, and handed it to Lizabetha Prokofievna. It ran as follows:
"In the eyes of the world I am sure that I have no cause for pride or self-esteem. I am much too insignificant for that. But what may be so to other men's eyes is not so to yours. I am convinced that you are better than other people. Doktorenko disagrees with me, but I am content to differ from him on this point. I will never accept one single copeck from you, but you have helped my mother, and I am bound to be grateful to you for that, however weak it may seem. At any rate, I have changed my opinion about you, and I think right to inform you of the fact; but I also suppose that there can be no further inter course between us.
"P.S.—The two hundred roubles I owe you shall certainly be repaid in time."
"How extremely stupid!" cried Mrs. Epanchin, giving back the letter abruptly. "It was not worth the trouble of reading. Why are you smiling?"
"Confess that you are pleased to have read it."
"What! Pleased with all that nonsense! Why, cannot you see that they are all infatuated with pride and vanity?"
"He has acknowledged himself to be in the wrong. Don't you see that the greater his vanity, the more difficult this admission must have been on his part? Oh, what a little child you are, Lizabetha Prokofievna!"
"Are you tempting me to box your ears for you, or what?"
"Not at all. I am only proving that you are glad about the letter. Why conceal your real feelings? You always like to do it."
"Never come near my house again!" cried Mrs. Epanchin, pale with rage. "Don't let me see as much as a shadow of you about the place! Do you hear?"
"Oh yes, and in three days you'll come and invite me yourself. Aren't you ashamed now? These are your best feelings; you are only tormenting yourself."
"I'll die before I invite you! I shall forget your very name! I've forgotten it already!"
She marched towards the door.
"But I'm forbidden your house as it is, without your added threats!" cried the prince after her.
"What? Who forbade you?"
She turned round so suddenly that one might have supposed a needle had been stuck into her.
The prince hesitated. He perceived that he had said too much now.
"Who forbade you?" cried Mrs. Epanchin once more.
"Aglaya Ivanovna told me—"
"She sent to say, yesterday morning, that I was never to dare to come near the house again."
Lizabetha Prokofievna stood like a stone.
"What did she send? Whom? Was it that boy? Was it a message?-quick!"
"I had a note," said the prince.
"Where is it? Give it here, at once."
The prince thought a moment. Then he pulled out of his waistcoat pocket an untidy slip of paper, on which was scrawled:
"Prince Lef Nicolaievitch,—If you think fit, after all that has passed, to honour our house with a visit, I can assure you you will not find me among the number of those who are in any way delighted to see you.
Mrs. Epanchin reflected a moment. The next minute she flew at the prince, seized his hand, and dragged him after her to the door.
"Quick—come along!" she cried, breathless with agitation and impatience. "Come along with me this moment!"
"But you declared I wasn't—"
"Don't be a simpleton. You behave just as though you weren't a man at all. Come on! I shall see, now, with my own eyes. I shall see all."
"Well, let me get my hat, at least."
"Here's your miserable hat. He couldn't even choose a respectable shape for his hat! Come on! She did that because I took your part and said you ought to have come—little vixen!—else she would never have sent you that silly note. It's a most improper note, I call it; most improper for such an intelligent, well-brought-up girl to write. H'm! I dare say she was annoyed that you didn't come; but she ought to have known that one can't write like that to an idiot like you, for you'd be sure to take it literally." Mrs. Epanchin was dragging the prince along with her all the time, and never let go of his hand for an instant. "What are you listening for?" she added, seeing that she had committed herself a little. "She wants a clown like you—she hasn't seen one for some time—to play with. That's why she is anxious for you to come to the house. And right glad I am that she'll make a thorough good fool of you. You deserve it; and she can do it—oh! she can, indeed!—as well as most people."