"I did not ask about Gania out of curiosity," said the elder, at last. "I wish to know how much you know about him, because he said just now that we need not stand on ceremony with you. What, exactly, does that mean?"
At this moment Gania and Ptitsin entered the room together, and Nina Alexandrovna immediately became silent again. The prince remained seated next to her, but Varia moved to the other end of the room; the portrait of Nastasia Philipovna remained lying as before on the work-table. Gania observed it there, and with a frown of annoyance snatched it up and threw it across to his writing-table, which stood at the other end of the room.
"Is it today, Gania?" asked Nina Alexandrovna, at last.
"Is what today?" cried the former. Then suddenly recollecting himself, he turned sharply on the prince. "Oh," he growled, "I see, you are here, that explains it! Is it a disease, or what, that you can't hold your tongue? Look here, understand once for all, prince — "
"I am to blame in this, Gania — no one else," said Ptitsin.
Gania glanced inquiringly at the speaker.
"It's better so, you know, Gania — especially as, from one point of view, the matter may be considered as settled," said Ptitsin; and sitting down a little way from the table he began to study a paper covered with pencil writing.
Gania stood and frowned, he expected a family scene. He never thought of apologizing to the prince, however.
"If it's all settled, Gania, then of course Mr. Ptitsin is right," said Nina Alexandrovna. "Don't frown. You need not worry yourself, Gania; I shall ask you no questions. You need not tell me anything you don't like. I assure you I have quite submitted to your will." She said all this, knitting away the while as though perfectly calm and composed.
Gania was surprised, but cautiously kept silence and looked at his mother, hoping that she would express herself more clearly. Nina Alexandrovna observed his cautiousness and added, with a bitter smile:
"You are still suspicious, I see, and do not believe me; but you may be quite at your ease. There shall be no more tears, nor questions — not from my side, at all events. All I wish is that you may be happy, you know that. I have submitted to my fate; but my heart will always be with you, whether we remain united, or whether we part. Of course I only answer for myself — you can hardly expect your sister — "
"My sister again," cried Gania, looking at her with contempt and almost hate. "Look here, mother, I have already given you my word that I shall always respect you fully and absolutely, and so shall everyone else in this house, be it who it may, who shall cross this threshold."
Gania was so much relieved that he gazed at his mother almost affectionately.
"I was not at all afraid for myself, Gania, as you know well. It was not for my own sake that I have been so anxious and worried all this time! They say it is all to be settled to-day. What is to be settled?"
"She has promised to tell me tonight at her own house whether she consents or not," replied Gania.
"We have been silent on this subject for three weeks," said his mother, "and it was better so; and now I will only ask you one question. How can she give her consent and make you a present of her portrait when you do not love her? How can such a — such a — "
"Practised hand — eh?"
"I was not going to express myself so. But how could you so blind her?"
Nina Alexandrovna's question betrayed intense annoyance. Gania waited a moment and then said, without taking the trouble to conceal the irony of his tone:
"There you are, mother, you are always like that. You begin by promising that there are to be no reproaches or insinuations or questions, and here you are beginning them at once. We had better drop the subject — we had, really. I shall never leave you, mother; any other man would cut and run from such a sister as this. See how she is looking at me at this moment! Besides, how do you know that I am blinding Nastasia Philipovna? As for Varia, I don't care — she can do just as she pleases. There, that's quite enough!"
Gania's irritation increased with every word he uttered, as he walked up and down the room. These conversations always touched the family sores before long.
"I have said already that the moment she comes in I go out, and I shall keep my word," remarked Varia.
"Out of obstinacy" shouted Gania. "You haven't married, either, thanks to your obstinacy. Oh, you needn't frown at me, Varvara! You can go at once for all I care; I am sick enough of your company. What, you are going to leave us are you, too?" he cried, turning to the prince, who was rising from his chair.
Gania's voice was full of the most uncontrolled and uncontrollable irritation.
The prince turned at the door to say something, but perceiving in Gania's expression that there was but that one drop wanting to make the cup overflow, he changed his mind and left the room without a word. A few minutes later he was aware from the noisy voices in the drawing room, that the conversation had become more quarrelsome than ever after his departure.
He crossed the salon and the entrance-hall, so as to pass down the corridor into his own room. As he came near the front door he heard someone outside vainly endeavouring to ring the bell, which was evidently broken, and only shook a little, without emitting any sound.
The prince took down the chain and opened the door. He started back in amazement — for there stood Nastasia Philipovna. He knew her at once from her photograph. Her eyes blazed with anger as she looked at him. She quickly pushed by him into the hall, shouldering him out of her way, and said, furiously, as she threw off her fur cloak:
"If you are too lazy to mend your bell, you should at least wait in the hall to let people in when they rattle the bell handle. There, now, you've dropped my fur cloak — dummy!"
Sure enough the cloak was lying on the ground. Nastasia had thrown it off her towards the prince, expecting him to catch it, but the prince had missed it.
"Now then — announce me, quick!"
The prince wanted to say something, but was so confused and astonished that he could not. However, he moved off towards the drawing-room with the cloak over his arm.
"Now then, where are you taking my cloak to? Ha, ha, ha! Are you mad?"
The prince turned and came back, more confused than ever. When she burst out laughing, he smiled, but his tongue could not form a word as yet. At first, when he had opened the door and saw her standing before him, he had become as pale as death; but now the red blood had rushed back to his cheeks in a torrent.
"Why, what an idiot it is!" cried Nastasia, stamping her foot with irritation. "Go on, do! Whom are you going to announce?"
"Nastasia Philipovna," murmured the prince.
"And how do you know that?" she asked him, sharply.
"I have never seen you before!"
"Go on, announce me — what's that noise?"
"They are quarrelling," said the prince, and entered the drawing-room, just as matters in there had almost reached a crisis. Nina Alexandrovna had forgotten that she had "submitted to everything!" She was defending Varia. Ptitsin was taking her part, too. Not that Varia was afraid of standing up for herself. She was by no means that sort of a girl; but her brother was becoming ruder and more intolerable every moment. Her usual practice in such cases as the present was to say nothing, but stare at him, without taking her eyes off his face for an instant. This manoeuvre, as she well knew, could drive Gania distracted.
Just at this moment the door opened and the prince entered, announcing: