"My dear good Prince Lef Nicolaievitch," began the general again, suddenly, "both I and Lizabetha Prokofievna — (who has begun to respect you once more, and me through you, goodness knows why!) — we both love you very sincerely, and esteem you, in spite of any appearances to the contrary. But you'll admit what a riddle it must have been for us when that calm, cold, little spitfire, Aglaya — (for she stood up to her mother and answered her questions with inexpressible contempt, and mine still more so, because, like a fool, I thought it my duty to assert myself as head of the family) — when Aglaya stood up of a sudden and informed us that 'that madwoman' (strangely enough, she used exactly the same expression as you did) 'has taken it into her head to marry me to Prince Lef Nicolaievitch, and therefore is doing her best to choke Evgenie Pavlovitch off, and rid the house of him.' That's what she said. She would not give the slightest explanation; she burst out laughing, banged the door, and went away. We all stood there with our mouths open. Well, I was told afterwards of your little passage with Aglaya this afternoon, and-and — dear prince — you are a good, sensible fellow, don't be angry if I speak out — she is laughing at you, my boy! She is enjoying herself like a child, at your expense, and therefore, since she is a child, don't be angry with her, and don't think anything of it. I assure you, she is simply making a fool of you, just as she does with one and all of us out of pure lack of something better to do. Well — good-bye! You know our feelings, don't you — our sincere feelings for yourself? They are unalterable, you know, dear boy, under all circumstances, but — Well, here we part; I must go down to the right. Rarely have I sat so uncomfortably in my saddle, as they say, as I now sit. And people talk of the charms of a country holiday!"
Left to himself at the cross-roads, the prince glanced around him, quickly crossed the road towards the lighted window of a neighbouring house, and unfolded a tiny scrap of paper which he had held clasped in his right hand during the whole of his conversation with the general.
He read the note in the uncertain rays that fell from the window. It was as follows:
"Tomorrow morning, I shall be at the green bench in the park at seven, and shall wait there for you. I have made up my mind to speak to you about a most important matter which closely concerns yourself.
"P.S. — I trust that you will not show this note to anyone. Though I am ashamed of giving you such instructions, I feel that I must do so, considering what you are. I therefore write the words, and blush for your simple character.
"P.P.S. — It is the same green bench that I showed you before. There! aren't you ashamed of yourself? I felt that it was necessary to repeat even that information."
The note was written and folded anyhow, evidently in a great hurry, and probably just before Aglaya had come down to the verandah.
In inexpressible agitation, amounting almost to fear, the prince slipped quickly away from the window, away from the light, like a frightened thief, but as he did so he collided violently with some gentleman who seemed to spring from the earth at his feet.
"I was watching for you, prince," said the individual.
"Is that you, Keller?" said the prince, in surprise.
"Yes, I've been looking for you. I waited for you at the Epanchins' house, but of course I could not come in. I dogged you from behind as you walked along with the general. Well, prince, here is Keller, absolutely at your service — command him! — ready to sacrifice himself — even to die in case of need."
"Oh, why? — Of course you'll be challenged! That was young Lieutenant Moloftsoff. I know him, or rather of him; he won't pass an insult. He will take no notice of Rogojin and myself, and, therefore, you are the only one left to account for. You'll have to pay the piper, prince. He has been asking about you, and undoubtedly his friend will call on you tomorrow — perhaps he is at your house already. If you would do me the honour to have me for a second, prince, I should be happy. That's why I have been looking for you now."
"Duel! You've come to talk about a duel, too!" The prince burst out laughing, to the great astonishment of Keller. He laughed unrestrainedly, and Keller, who had been on pins and needles, and in a fever of excitement to offer himself as "second," was very near being offended.
"You caught him by the arms, you know, prince. No man of proper pride can stand that sort of treatment in public."
"Yes, and he gave me a fearful dig in the chest," cried the prince, still laughing. "What are we to fight about? I shall beg his pardon, that's all. But if we must fight — we'll fight! Let him have a shot at me, by all means; I should rather like it. Ha, ha, ha! I know how to load a pistol now; do you know how to load a pistol, Keller? First, you have to buy the powder, you know; it mustn't be wet, and it mustn't be that coarse stuff that they load cannons with — it must be pistol powder. Then you pour the powder in, and get hold of a bit of felt from some door, and then shove the bullet in. But don't shove the bullet in before the powder, because the thing wouldn't go off — do you hear, Keller, the thing wouldn't go off! Ha, ha, ha! Isn't that a grand reason, Keller, my friend, eh? Do you know, my dear fellow, I really must kiss you, and embrace you, this very moment. Ha, ha! How was it you so suddenly popped up in front of me as you did? Come to my house as soon as you can, and we'll have some champagne. We'll all get drunk! Do you know I have a dozen of champagne in Lebedeff's cellar? Lebedeff sold them to me the day after I arrived. I took the lot. We'll invite everybody! Are you going to do any sleeping tonight?"
"As much as usual, prince — why?"
"Pleasant dreams then — ha, ha!"
The prince crossed the road, and disappeared into the park, leaving the astonished Keller in a state of ludicrous wonder. He had never before seen the prince in such a strange condition of mind, and could not have imagined the possibility of it.
"Fever, probably," he said to himself, "for the man is all nerves, and this business has been a little too much for him. He is not AFRAID, that's clear; that sort never funks! H'm! champagne! That was an interesting item of news, at all events! — Twelve bottles! Dear me, that's a very respectable little stock indeed! I bet anything Lebedeff lent somebody money on deposit of this dozen of champagne. Hum! he's a nice fellow, is this prince! I like this sort of man. Well, I needn't be wasting time here, and if it's a case of champagne, why — there's no time like the present!"
That the prince was almost in a fever was no more than the truth. He wandered about the park for a long while, and at last came to himself in a lonely avenue. He was vaguely conscious that he had already paced this particular walk — from that large, dark tree to the bench at the other end — about a hundred yards altogether — at least thirty times backwards and forwards.
As to recollecting what he had been thinking of all that time, he could not. He caught himself, however, indulging in one thought which made him roar with laughter, though there was nothing really to laugh at in it; but he felt that he must laugh, and go on laughing.
It struck him that the idea of the duel might not have occurred to Keller alone, but that his lesson in the art of pistol-loading might have been not altogether accidental! "Pooh! nonsense!" he said to himself, struck by another thought, of a sudden. "Why, she was immensely surprised to find me there on the verandah, and laughed and talked about TEA! And yet she had this little note in her hand, therefore she must have known that I was sitting there. So why was she surprised? Ha, ha, ha!"
He pulled the note out and kissed it; then paused and reflected. "How strange it all is! how strange!" he muttered, melancholy enough now. In moments of great joy, he invariably felt a sensation of melancholy come over him — he could not tell why.
He looked intently around him, and wondered why he had come here; he was very tired, so he approached the bench and sat down on it. Around him was profound silence; the music in the Vauxhall was over. The park seemed quite empty, though it was not, in reality, later than half-past eleven. It was a quiet, warm, clear night — a real Petersburg night of early June; but in the dense avenue, where he was sitting, it was almost pitch dark.
If anyone had come up at this moment and told him that he was in love, passionately in love, he would have rejected the idea with astonishment, and, perhaps, with irritation. And if anyone had added that Aglaya's note was a love-letter, and that it contained an appointment to a lover's rendezvous, he would have blushed with shame for the speaker, and, probably, have challenged him to a duel.