"Oh, not cold — believe an old man — not from a cold, but from grief for her prince. Oh — your mother, your mother! heigh-ho! Youth — youth! Your father and I — old friends as we were — nearly murdered each other for her sake."
The prince began to be a little incredulous.
"I was passionately in love with her when she was engaged — engaged to my friend. The prince noticed the fact and was furious. He came and woke me at seven o'clock one morning. I rise and dress in amazement; silence on both sides. I understand it all. He takes a couple of pistols out of his pocket — across a handkerchief — without witnesses. Why invite witnesses when both of us would be walking in eternity in a couple of minutes? The pistols are loaded; we stretch the handkerchief and stand opposite one another. We aim the pistols at each other's hearts. Suddenly tears start to our eyes, our hands shake; we weep, we embrace — the battle is one of self-sacrifice now! The prince shouts, 'She is yours;' I cry, 'She is yours — ' in a word, in a word — You've come to live with us, hey?"
"Yes — yes — for a while, I think," stammered the prince.
"Prince, mother begs you to come to her," said Colia, appearing at the door.
The prince rose to go, but the general once more laid his hand in a friendly manner on his shoulder, and dragged him down on to the sofa.
"As the true friend of your father, I wish to say a few words to you," he began. "I have suffered — there was a catastrophe. I suffered without a trial; I had no trial. Nina Alexandrovna my wife, is an excellent woman, so is my daughter Varvara. We have to let lodgings because we are poor — a dreadful, unheard-of come-down for us — for me, who should have been a governor-general; but we are very glad to have YOU, at all events. Meanwhile there is a tragedy in the house."
The prince looked inquiringly at the other.
"Yes, a marriage is being arranged — a marriage between a questionable woman and a young fellow who might be a flunkey. They wish to bring this woman into the house where my wife and daughter reside, but while I live and breathe she shall never enter my doors. I shall lie at the threshold, and she shall trample me underfoot if she does. I hardly talk to Gania now, and avoid him as much as I can. I warn you of this beforehand, but you cannot fail to observe it. But you are the son of my old friend, and I hope — "
"Prince, be so kind as to come to me for a moment in the drawing-room," said Nina Alexandrovna herself, appearing at the door.
"Imagine, my dear," cried the general, "it turns out that I have nursed the prince on my knee in the old days." His wife looked searchingly at him, and glanced at the prince, but said nothing. The prince rose and followed her; but hardly had they reached the drawing-room, and Nina Alexandrovna had begun to talk hurriedly, when in came the general. She immediately relapsed into silence. The master of the house may have observed this, but at all events he did not take any notice of it; he was in high good humour.
"A son of my old friend, dear," he cried; "surely you must remember Prince Nicolai Lvovitch? You saw him at — at Tver."
"I don't remember any Nicolai Lvovitch, Was that your father?" she inquired of the prince.
"Yes, but he died at Elizabethgrad, not at Tver," said the prince, rather timidly. "So Pavlicheff told me."
"No, Tver," insisted the general; "he removed just before his death. You were very small and cannot remember; and Pavlicheff, though an excellent fellow, may have made a mistake."
"You knew Pavlicheff then?"
"Oh, yes — a wonderful fellow; but I was present myself. I gave him my blessing."
"My father was just about to be tried when he died," said the prince, "although I never knew of what he was accused. He died in hospital."
"Oh! it was the Kolpakoff business, and of course he would have been acquitted."
"Yes? Do you know that for a fact?" asked the prince, whose curiosity was aroused by the general's words.
"I should think so indeed!" cried the latter. "The court-martial came to no decision. It was a mysterious, an impossible business, one might say! Captain Larionoff, commander of the company, had died; his command was handed over to the prince for the moment. Very well. This soldier, Kolpakoff, stole some leather from one of his comrades, intending to sell it, and spent the money on drink. Well! The prince — you understand that what follows took place in the presence of the sergeant-major, and a corporal — the prince rated Kolpakoff soundly, and threatened to have him flogged. Well, Kolpakoff went back to the barracks, lay down on a camp bedstead, and in a quarter of an hour was dead: you quite understand? It was, as I said, a strange, almost impossible, affair. In due course Kolpakoff was buried; the prince wrote his report, the deceased's name was removed from the roll. All as it should be, is it not? But exactly three months later at the inspection of the brigade, the man Kolpakoff was found in the third company of the second battalion of infantry, Novozemlianski division, just as if nothing had happened!"
"What?" said the prince, much astonished.
"It did not occur — it's a mistake!" said Nina Alexandrovna quickly, looking, at the prince rather anxiously. "Mon mari se trompe," she added, speaking in French.
"My dear, 'se trompe' is easily said. Do you remember any case at all like it? Everybody was at their wits' end. I should be the first to say 'qu'on se trompe,' but unfortunately I was an eye-witness, and was also on the commission of inquiry. Everything proved that it was really he, the very same soldier Kolpakoff who had been given the usual military funeral to the sound of the drum. It is of course a most curious case — nearly an impossible one. I recognize that . . . but — "
"Father, your dinner is ready," said Varvara at this point, putting her head in at the door.
"Very glad, I'm particularly hungry. Yes, yes, a strange coincidence — almost a psychological — "
"Your soup'll be cold; do come."
"Coming, coming," said the general. "Son of my old friend — " he was heard muttering as he went down the passage.
"You will have to excuse very much in my husband, if you stay with us," said Nina Alexandrovna; "but he will not disturb you often. He dines alone. Everyone has his little peculiarities, you know, and some people perhaps have more than those who are most pointed at and laughed at. One thing I must beg of you-if my husband applies to you for payment for board and lodging, tell him that you have already paid me. Of course anything paid by you to the general would be as fully settled as if paid to me, so far as you are concerned; but I wish it to be so, if you please, for convenience' sake. What is it, Varia?"
Varia had quietly entered the room, and was holding out the portrait of Nastasia Philipovna to her mother.
Nina Alexandrovna started, and examined the photograph intently, gazing at it long and sadly. At last she looked up inquiringly at Varia.
"It's a present from herself to him," said Varia; "the question is to be finally decided this evening."
"This evening!" repeated her mother in a tone of despair, but softly, as though to herself. "Then it's all settled, of course, and there's no hope left to us. She has anticipated her answer by the present of her portrait. Did he show it you himself?" she added, in some surprise.
"You know we have hardly spoken to each other for a whole month. Ptitsin told me all about it; and the photo was lying under the table, and I picked it up."
"Prince," asked Nina Alexandrovna, "I wanted to inquire whether you have known my son long? I think he said that you had only arrived today from somewhere."
The prince gave a short narrative of what we have heard before, leaving out the greater part. The two ladies listened intently.