HIPPOLYTE had now been five days at the Ptitsins'. His flitting from the prince's to these new quarters had been brought about quite naturally and without many words. He did not quarrel with the prince — in fact, they seemed to part as friends. Gania, who had been hostile enough on that eventful evening, had himself come to see him a couple of days later, probably in obedience to some sudden impulse. For some reason or other, Rogojin too had begun to visit the sick boy. The prince thought it might be better for him to move away from his (the prince's) house. Hippolyte informed him, as he took his leave, that Ptitsin "had been kind enough to offer him a corner," and did not say a word about Gania, though Gania had procured his invitation, and himself came to fetch him away. Gania noticed this at the time, and put it to Hippolyte's debit on account.
Gania was right when he told his sister that Hippolyte was getting better; that he was better was clear at the first glance. He entered the room now last of all, deliberately, and with a disagreeable smile on his lips.
Nina Alexandrovna came in, looking frightened. She had changed much since we last saw her, half a year ago, and had grown thin and pale. Colia looked worried and perplexed. He could not understand the vagaries of the general, and knew nothing of the last achievement of that worthy, which had caused so much commotion in the house. But he could see that his father had of late changed very much, and that he had begun to behave in so extraordinary a fashion both at home and abroad that he was not like the same man. What perplexed and disturbed him as much as anything was that his father had entirely given up drinking during the last few days. Colia knew that he had quarrelled with both Lebedeff and the prince, and had just bought a small bottle of vodka and brought it home for his father.
"Really, mother," he had assured Nina Alexandrovna upstairs, "really you had better let him drink. He has not had a drop for three days; he must be suffering agonies — The general now entered the room, threw the door wide open, and stood on the threshold trembling with indignation.
"Look here, my dear sir," he began, addressing Ptitsin in a very loud tone of voice; "if you have really made up your mind to sacrifice an old man — your father too or at all events father of your wife — an old man who has served his emperor — to a wretched little atheist like this, all I can say is, sir, my foot shall cease to tread your floors. Make your choice, sir; make your choice quickly, if you please! Me or this — screw! Yes, screw, sir; I said it accidentally, but let the word stand — this screw, for he screws and drills himself into my soul — "
"Hadn't you better say corkscrew?" said Hippolyte.
"No, sir, NOT corkscrew. I am a general, not a bottle, sir. Make your choice, sir — me or him."
Here Colia handed him a chair, and he subsided into it, breathless with rage.
"Hadn't you better — better — take a nap?" murmured the stupefied Ptitsin.
"A nap?" shrieked the general. "I am not drunk, sir; you insult me! I see," he continued, rising, "I see that all are against me here. Enough — I go; but know, sirs — know that — "
He was not allowed to finish his sentence. Somebody pushed him back into his chair, and begged him to be calm. Nina Alexandrovna trembled, and cried quietly. Gania retired to the window in disgust.
"But what have I done? What is his grievance?" asked Hippolyte, grinning.
"What have you done, indeed?" put in Nina Alexandrovna. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, teasing an old man like that — and in your position, too."
"And pray what IS my position, madame? I have the greatest respect for you, personally; but — "
"He's a little screw," cried the general; "he drills holes my heart and soul. He wishes me to be a pervert to atheism. Know, you young greenhorn, that I was covered with honours before ever you were born; and you are nothing better than a wretched little worm, torn in two with coughing, and dying slowly of your own malice and unbelief. What did Gavrila bring you over here for? They're all against me, even to my own son — all against me."
"Oh, come — nonsense!" cried Gania; "if you did not go shaming us all over the town, things might be better for all parties."
"What — shame you? I? — what do you mean, you young calf? I shame you? I can only do you honour, sir; I cannot shame you."
He jumped up from his chair in a fit of uncontrollable rage. Gania was very angry too.
"Honour, indeed!" said the latter, with contempt.
"What do you say, sir?" growled the general, taking a step towards him.
"I say that I have but to open my mouth, and you — "
Gania began, but did not finish. The two — father and son — stood before one another, both unspeakably agitated, especially Gania.
"Gania, Gania, reflect!" cried his mother, hurriedly.
"It's all nonsense on both sides," snapped out Varia. "Let them alone, mother."
"It's only for mother's sake that I spare him," said Gania, tragically.
"Speak!" said the general, beside himself with rage and excitement; "speak — under the penalty of a father's curse!"
"Oh, father's curse be hanged — you don't frighten me that way!" said Gania. "Whose fault is it that you have been as mad as a March hare all this week? It is just a week — you see, I count the days. Take care now; don't provoke me too much, or I'll tell all. Why did you go to the Epanchins' yesterday — tell me that? And you call yourself an old man, too, with grey hair, and father of a family! H'm — nice sort of a father."
"Be quiet, Gania," cried Colia. "Shut up, you fool!"
"Yes, but how have I offended him?" repeated Hippolyte, still in the same jeering voice. "Why does he call me a screw? You all heard it. He came to me himself and began telling me about some Captain Eropegoff. I don't wish for your company, general. I always avoided you — you know that. What have I to do with Captain Eropegoff? All I did was to express my opinion that probably Captain Eropegoff never existed at all!"
"Of course he never existed!" Gania interrupted.
But the general only stood stupefied and gazed around in a dazed way. Gania's speech had impressed him, with its terrible candour. For the first moment or two he could find no words to answer him, and it was only when Hippolyte burst out laughing, and said:
"There, you see! Even your own son supports my statement that there never was such a person as Captain Eropegoff!" that the old fellow muttered confusedly:
"Kapiton Eropegoff — not Captain Eropegoff! — Kapiton — major retired — Eropegoff — Kapiton."
"Kapiton didn't exist either!" persisted Gania, maliciously.
"What? Didn't exist?" cried the poor general, and a deep blush suffused his face.
"That'll do, Gania!" cried Varia and Ptitsin.
"Shut up, Gania!" said Colia.
But this intercession seemed to rekindle the general.