"Oh, what NONSENSE! You must buy one. French or English are the best, they say. Then take a little powder, about a thimbleful, or perhaps two, and pour it into the barrel. Better put plenty. Then push in a bit of felt (it MUST be felt, for some reason or other); you can easily get a bit off some old mattress, or off a door; it's used to keep the cold out. Well, when you have pushed the felt down, put the bullet in; do you hear now? The bullet last and the powder first, not the other way, or the pistol won't shoot. What are you laughing at? I wish you to buy a pistol and practise every day, and you must learn to hit a mark for CERTAIN; will you?"
The prince only laughed. Aglaya stamped her foot with annoyance.
Her serious air, however, during this conversation had surprised him considerably. He had a feeling that he ought to be asking her something, that there was something he wanted to find out far more important than how to load a pistol; but his thoughts had all scattered, and he was only aware that she was sitting by, him, and talking to him, and that he was looking at her; as to what she happened to be saying to him, that did not matter in the least.
The general now appeared on the verandah, coming from upstairs. He was on his way out, with an expression of determination on his face, and of preoccupation and worry also.
"Ah! Lef Nicolaievitch, it's you, is it? Where are you off to now?" he asked, oblivious of the fact that the prince had not showed the least sign of moving. "Come along with me; I want to say a word or two to you."
"Au revoir, then!" said Aglaya, holding out her hand to the prince.
It was quite dark now, and Muishkin could not see her face clearly, but a minute or two later, when he and the general had left the villa, he suddenly flushed up, and squeezed his right hand tightly.
It appeared that he and the general were going in the same direction. In spite of the lateness of the hour, the general was hurrying away to talk to someone upon some important subject. Meanwhile he talked incessantly but disconnectedly to the prince, and continually brought in the name of Lizabetha Prokofievna.
If the prince had been in a condition to pay more attention to what the general was saying, he would have discovered that the latter was desirous of drawing some information out of him, or indeed of asking him some question outright; but that he could not make up his mind to come to the point.
Muishkin was so absent, that from the very first he could not attend to a word the other was saying; and when the general suddenly stopped before him with some excited question, he was obliged to confess, ignominiously, that he did not know in the least what he had been talking about.
The general shrugged his shoulders.
"How strange everyone, yourself included, has become of late," said he. "I was telling you that I cannot in the least understand Lizabetha Prokofievna's ideas and agitations. She is in hysterics up there, and moans and says that we have been 'shamed and disgraced.' How? Why? When? By whom? I confess that I am very much to blame myself; I do not conceal the fact; but the conduct, the outrageous behaviour of this woman, must really be kept within limits, by the police if necessary, and I am just on my way now to talk the question over and make some arrangements. It can all be managed quietly and gently, even kindly, and without the slightest fuss or scandal. I foresee that the future is pregnant with events, and that there is much that needs explanation. There is intrigue in the wind; but if on one side nothing is known, on the other side nothing will be explained. If I have heard nothing about it, nor have YOU, nor HE, nor SHE — who HAS heard about it, I should like to know? How CAN all this be explained except by the fact that half of it is mirage or moonshine, or some hallucination of that sort?"
"SHE is insane," muttered the prince, suddenly recollecting all that had passed, with a spasm of pain at his heart.
"I too had that idea, and I slept in peace. But now I see that their opinion is more correct. I do not believe in the theory of madness! The woman has no common sense; but she is not only not insane, she is artful to a degree. Her outburst of this evening about Evgenie's uncle proves that conclusively. It was VILLAINOUS, simply jesuitical, and it was all for some special purpose."
"What about Evgenie's uncle?"
"My goodness, Lef Nicolaievitch, why, you can't have heard a single word I said! Look at me, I'm still trembling all over with the dreadful shock! It is that that kept me in town so late. Evgenie Pavlovitch's uncle — "
"Well?" cried the prince.
"Shot himself this morning, at seven o'clock. A respected, eminent old man of seventy; and exactly point for point as she described it; a sum of money, a considerable sum of government money, missing!"
"Why, how could she — "
"What, know of it? Ha, ha, ha! Why, there was a whole crowd round her the moment she appeared on the scenes here. You know what sort of people surround her nowadays, and solicit the honour of her 'acquaintance.' Of course she might easily have heard the news from someone coming from town. All Petersburg, if not all Pavlofsk, knows it by now. Look at the slyness of her observation about Evgenie's uniform! I mean, her remark that he had retired just in time! There's a venomous hint for you, if you like! No, no! there's no insanity there! Of course I refuse to believe that Evgenie Pavlovitch could have known beforehand of the catastrophe; that is, that at such and such a day at seven o'clock, and all that; but he might well have had a presentiment of the truth. And I — all of us — Prince S. and everybody, believed that he was to inherit a large fortune from this uncle. It's dreadful, horrible! Mind, I don't suspect Evgenie of anything, be quite clear on that point; but the thing is a little suspicious, nevertheless. Prince S. can't get over it. Altogether it is a very extraordinary combination of circumstances."
"What suspicion attaches to Evgenie Pavlovitch?"
"Oh, none at all! He has behaved very well indeed. I didn't mean to drop any sort of hint. His own fortune is intact, I believe. Lizabetha Prokofievna, of course, refuses to listen to anything. That's the worst of it all, these family catastrophes or quarrels, or whatever you like to call them. You know, prince, you are a friend of the family, so I don't mind telling you; it now appears that Evgenie Pavlovitch proposed to Aglaya a month ago, and was refused."
"Impossible!" cried the prince.
"Why? Do you know anything about it? Look here," continued the general, more agitated than ever, and trembling with excitement, "maybe I have been letting the cat out of the bag too freely with you, if so, it is because you are — that sort of man, you know! Perhaps you have some special information?"
"I know nothing about Evgenie Pavlovitch!" said the prince.
"Nor do I! They always try to bury me underground when there's anything going on; they don't seem to reflect that it is unpleasant to a man to be treated so! I won't stand it! We have just had a terrible scene! — mind, I speak to you as I would to my own son! Aglaya laughs at her mother. Her sisters guessed about Evgenie having proposed and been rejected, and told Lizabetha.
"I tell you, my dear fellow, Aglaya is such an extraordinary, such a self-willed, fantastical little creature, you wouldn't believe it! Every high quality, every brilliant trait of heart and mind, are to be found in her, and, with it all, so much caprice and mockery, such wild fancies — indeed, a little devil! She has just been laughing at her mother to her very face, and at her sisters, and at Prince S., and everybody — and of course she always laughs at me! You know I love the child — I love her even when she laughs at me, and I believe the wild little creature has a special fondness for me for that very reason. She is fonder of me than any of the others. I dare swear she has had a good laugh at YOU before now! You were having a quiet talk just now, I observed, after all the thunder and lightning upstairs. She was sitting with you just as though there had been no row at all."
The prince blushed painfully in the darkness, and closed his right hand tightly, but he said nothing.