Mrs. General Epanchin was a proud woman by nature. What must her feelings have been when she heard that Prince Muishkin, the last of his and her line, had arrived in beggar's guise, a wretched idiot, a recipient of charity — all of which details the general gave out for greater effect! He was anxious to steal her interest at the first swoop, so as to distract her thoughts from other matters nearer home.
Mrs. Epanchin was in the habit of holding herself very straight, and staring before her, without speaking, in moments of excitement.
She was a fine woman of the same age as her husband, with a slightly hooked nose, a high, narrow forehead, thick hair turning a little grey, and a sallow complexion. Her eyes were grey and wore a very curious expression at times. She believed them to be most effective — a belief that nothing could alter.
"What, receive him! Now, at once?" asked Mrs. Epanchin, gazing vaguely at her husband as he stood fidgeting before her.
"Oh, dear me, I assure you there is no need to stand on ceremony with him," the general explained hastily. "He is quite a child, not to say a pathetic-looking creature. He has fits of some sort, and has just arrived from Switzerland, straight from the station, dressed like a German and without a farthing in his pocket. I gave him twenty-five roubles to go on with, and am going to find him some easy place in one of the government offices. I should like you to ply him well with the victuals, my dears, for I should think he must be very hungry."
"You astonish me," said the lady, gazing as before. "Fits, and hungry too! What sort of fits?"
"Oh, they don't come on frequently, besides, he's a regular child, though he seems to be fairly educated. I should like you, if possible, my dears," the general added, making slowly for the door, "to put him through his paces a bit, and see what he is good for. I think you should be kind to him; it is a good deed, you know — however, just as you like, of course — but he is a sort of relation, remember, and I thought it might interest you to see the young fellow, seeing that this is so."
"Oh, of course, mamma, if we needn't stand on ceremony with him, we must give the poor fellow something to eat after his journey; especially as he has not the least idea where to go to," said Alexandra, the eldest of the girls.
"Besides, he's quite a child; we can entertain him with a little hide-and-seek, in case of need," said Adelaida.
"Hide-and-seek? What do you mean?" inquired Mrs. Epanchin.
"Oh, do stop pretending, mamma," cried Aglaya, in vexation. "Send him up, father; mother allows."
The general rang the bell and gave orders that the prince should be shown in.
"Only on condition that he has a napkin under his chin at lunch, then," said Mrs. Epanchin, "and let Fedor, or Mavra, stand behind him while he eats. Is he quiet when he has these fits? He doesn't show violence, does he?"
"On the contrary, he seems to be very well brought up. His manners are excellent — but here he is himself. Here you are, prince — let me introduce you, the last of the Muishkins, a relative of your own, my dear, or at least of the same name. Receive him kindly, please. They'll bring in lunch directly, prince; you must stop and have some, but you must excuse me. I'm in a hurry, I must be off — "
"We all know where YOU must be off to!" said Mrs. Epanchin, in a meaning voice.
"Yes, yes — I must hurry away, I'm late! Look here, dears, let him write you something in your albums; you've no idea what a wonderful caligraphist he is, wonderful talent! He has just written out 'Abbot Pafnute signed this' for me. Well, au revoir!"
"Stop a minute; where are you off to? Who is this abbot?" cried Mrs. Epanchin to her retreating husband in a tone of excited annoyance.
"Yes, my dear, it was an old abbot of that name-I must be off to see the count, he's waiting for me, I'm late — Good-bye! Au revoir, prince!" — and the general bolted at full speed.
"Oh, yes — I know what count you're going to see!" remarked his wife in a cutting manner, as she turned her angry eyes on the prince. "Now then, what's all this about? — What abbot — Who's Pafnute?" she added, brusquely.
"Mamma!" said Alexandra, shocked at her rudeness.
Aglaya stamped her foot.
"Nonsense! Let me alone!" said the angry mother. "Now then, prince, sit down here, no, nearer, come nearer the light! I want to have a good look at you. So, now then, who is this abbot?"
"Abbot Pafnute," said our friend, seriously and with deference.
"Pafnute, yes. And who was he?"
Mrs. Epanchin put these questions hastily and brusquely, and when the prince answered she nodded her head sagely at each word he said.
"The Abbot Pafnute lived in the fourteenth century," began the prince; "he was in charge of one of the monasteries on the Volga, about where our present Kostroma government lies. He went to Oreol and helped in the great matters then going on in the religious world; he signed an edict there, and I have seen a print of his signature; it struck me, so I copied it. When the general asked me, in his study, to write something for him, to show my handwriting, I wrote 'The Abbot Pafnute signed this,' in the exact handwriting of the abbot. The general liked it very much, and that's why he recalled it just now."
"Aglaya, make a note of 'Pafnute,' or we shall forget him. H'm! and where is this signature?"
"I think it was left on the general's table."
"Let it be sent for at once!"
"Oh, I'll write you a new one in half a minute," said the prince, "if you like!"
"Of course, mamma!" said Alexandra. "But let's have lunch now, we are all hungry!"
"Yes; come along, prince," said the mother, "are you very hungry?"
"Yes; I must say that I am pretty hungry, thanks very much."
"H'm! I like to see that you know your manners; and you are by no means such a person as the general thought fit to describe you. Come along; you sit here, opposite to me," she continued, "I wish to be able to see your face. Alexandra, Adelaida, look after the prince! He doesn't seem so very ill, does he? I don't think he requires a napkin under his chin, after all; are you accustomed to having one on, prince?"
"Formerly, when I was seven years old or so. I believe I wore one; but now I usually hold my napkin on my knee when I eat."
"Of course, of course! And about your fits?"
"Fits?" asked the prince, slightly surprised. "I very seldom have fits nowadays. I don't know how it may be here, though; they say the climate may be bad for me."