'A mighty lion, terror of the woods, Was shorn of his great prowess by old age.'
And I, your excellency, am the ass."
"I am of your opinion on that last point," said Ivan Fedorovitch, with ill-concealed irritation.
All this was no doubt extremely coarse, and moreover it was premeditated, but after all Ferdishenko had persuaded everyone to accept him as a buffoon.
"If I am admitted and tolerated here," he had said one day, "it is simply because I talk in this way. How can anyone possibly receive such a man as I am? I quite understand. Now, could I, a Ferdishenko, be allowed to sit shoulder to shoulder with a clever man like Afanasy Ivanovitch? There is one explanation, only one. I am given the position because it is so entirely inconceivable!"
But these vulgarities seemed to please Nastasia Philipovna, although too often they were both rude and offensive. Those who wished to go to her house were forced to put up with Ferdishenko. Possibly the latter was not mistaken in imagining that he was received simply in order to annoy Totski, who disliked him extremely. Gania also was often made the butt of the jester's sarcasms, who used this method of keeping in Nastasia Philipovna's good graces.
"The prince will begin by singing us a fashionable ditty," remarked Ferdishenko, and looked at the mistress of the house, to see what she would say.
"I don't think so, Ferdishenko; please be quiet," answered Nastasia Philipovna dryly.
"A-ah! if he is to be under special patronage, I withdraw my claws."
But Nastasia Philipovna had now risen and advanced to meet the prince.
"I was so sorry to have forgotten to ask you to come, when I saw you," she said, "and I am delighted to be able to thank you personally now, and to express my pleasure at your resolution."
So saying she gazed into his eyes, longing to see whether she could make any guess as to the explanation of his motive in coming to her house. The prince would very likely have made some reply to her kind words, but he was so dazzled by her appearance that he could not speak.
Nastasia noticed this with satisfaction. She was in full dress this evening; and her appearance was certainly calculated to impress all beholders. She took his hand and led him towards her other guests. But just before they reached the drawing-room door, the prince stopped her, and hurriedly and in great agitation whispered to her:
"You are altogether perfection; even your pallor and thinness are perfect; one could not wish you otherwise. I did so wish to come and see you. I — forgive me, please — "
"Don't apologize," said Nastasia, laughing; "you spoil the whole originality of the thing. I think what they say about you must be true, that you are so original. — So you think me perfection, do you?"
"H'm! Well, you may be a good reader of riddles but you are wrong THERE, at all events. I'll remind you of this, tonight."
Nastasia introduced the prince to her guests, to most of whom he was already known.
Totski immediately made some amiable remark. Al seemed to brighten up at once, and the conversation became general. Nastasia made the prince sit down next to herself.
"Dear me, there's nothing so very curious about the prince dropping in, after all," remarked Ferdishenko.
"It's quite a clear case," said the hitherto silent Gania. "I have watched the prince almost all day, ever since the moment when he first saw Nastasia Philipovna's portrait, at General Epanchin's. I remember thinking at the time what I am now pretty sure of; and what, I may say in passing, the prince confessed to myself."
Gania said all this perfectly seriously, and without the slightest appearance of joking; indeed, he seemed strangely gloomy.
"I did not confess anything to you," said the prince, blushing. "I only answered your question."
"Bravo! That's frank, at any rate!" shouted Ferdishenko, and there was general laughter.
"Oh prince, prince! I never should have thought it of you;" said General Epanchin. "And I imagined you a philosopher! Oh, you silent fellows!"
"Judging from the fact that the prince blushed at this innocent joke, like a young girl, I should think that he must, as an honourable man, harbour the noblest intentions," said the old toothless schoolmaster, most unexpectedly; he had not so much as opened his mouth before. This remark provoked general mirth, and the old fellow himself laughed loudest of the lot, but ended with a stupendous fit of coughing.
Nastasia Philipovna, who loved originality and drollery of all kinds, was apparently very fond of this old man, and rang the bell for more tea to stop his coughing. It was now half-past ten o'clock.
"Gentlemen, wouldn't you like a little champagne now?" she asked. "I have it all ready; it will cheer us up — do now — no ceremony!"
This invitation to drink, couched, as it was, in such informal terms, came very strangely from Nastasia Philipovna. Her usual entertainments were not quite like this; there was more style about them. However, the wine was not refused; each guest took a glass excepting Gania, who drank nothing.
It was extremely difficult to account for Nastasia's strange condition of mind, which became more evident each moment, and which none could avoid noticing.
She took her glass, and vowed she would empty it three times that evening. She was hysterical, and laughed aloud every other minute with no apparent reason — the next moment relapsing into gloom and thoughtfulness.
Some of her guests suspected that she must be ill; but concluded at last that she was expecting something, for she continued to look at her watch impatiently and unceasingly; she was most absent and strange.
"You seem to be a little feverish tonight," said the actress.
"Yes; I feel quite ill. I have been obliged to put on this shawl — I feel so cold," replied Nastasia. She certainly had grown very pale, and every now and then she tried to suppress a trembling in her limbs.
"Had we not better allow our hostess to retire?" asked Totski of the general.
"Not at all, gentlemen, not at all! Your presence is absolutely necessary to me tonight," said Nastasia, significantly.
As most of those present were aware that this evening a certain very important decision was to be taken, these words of Nastasia Philipovna's appeared to be fraught with much hidden interest. The general and Totski exchanged looks; Gania fidgeted convulsively in his chair.
"Let's play at some game!" suggested the actress.
"I know a new and most delightful game, added Ferdishenko.
"What is it?" asked the actress.