Ferdishenko led the general up to Nastasia Philipovna.
"Ardalion Alexandrovitch Ivolgin," said the smiling general, with a low bow of great dignity, "an old soldier, unfortunate, and the father of this family; but happy in the hope of including in that family so exquisite — "
He did not finish his sentence, for at this moment Ferdishenko pushed a chair up from behind, and the general, not very firm on his legs, at this post-prandial hour, flopped into it backwards. It was always a difficult thing to put this warrior to confusion, and his sudden descent left him as composed as before. He had sat down just opposite to Nastasia, whose fingers he now took, and raised to his lips with great elegance, and much courtesy. The general had once belonged to a very select circle of society, but he had been turned out of it two or three years since on account of certain weaknesses, in which he now indulged with all the less restraint; but his good manners remained with him to this day, in spite of all.
Nastasia Philipovna seemed delighted at the appearance of this latest arrival, of whom she had of course heard a good deal by report.
"I have heard that my son — " began Ardalion Alexandrovitch.
"Your son, indeed! A nice papa you are! YOU might have come to see me anyhow, without compromising anyone. Do you hide yourself, or does your son hide you?"
"The children of the nineteenth century, and their parents — " began the general, again.
"Nastasia Philipovna, will you excuse the general for a moment? Someone is inquiring for him," said Nina Alexandrovna in a loud voice, interrupting the conversation.
"Excuse him? Oh no, I have wished to see him too long for that. Why, what business can he have? He has retired, hasn't he? You won't leave me, general, will you?"
"I give you my word that he shall come and see you — but he — he needs rest just now."
"General, they say you require rest," said Nastasia Philipovna, with the melancholy face of a child whose toy is taken away.
Ardalion Alexandrovitch immediately did his best to make his foolish position a great deal worse.
"My dear, my dear!" he said, solemnly and reproachfully, looking at his wife, with one hand on his heart.
"Won't you leave the room, mamma?" asked Varia, aloud.
"No, Varia, I shall sit it out to the end."
Nastasia must have overheard both question and reply, but her vivacity was not in the least damped. On the contrary, it seemed to increase. She immediately overwhelmed the general once more with questions, and within five minutes that gentleman was as happy as a king, and holding forth at the top of his voice, amid the laughter of almost all who heard him.
Colia jogged the prince's arm.
"Can't YOU get him out of the room, somehow? DO, please," and tears of annoyance stood in the boy's eyes. "Curse that Gania!" he muttered, between his teeth.
"Oh yes, I knew General Epanchin well," General Ivolgin was saying at this moment; "he and Prince Nicolai Ivanovitch Muishkin — whose son I have this day embraced after an absence of twenty years — and I, were three inseparables. Alas one is in the grave, torn to pieces by calumnies and bullets; another is now before you, still battling with calumnies and bullets — "
"Bullets?" cried Nastasia.
"Yes, here in my chest. I received them at the siege of Kars, and I feel them in bad weather now. And as to the third of our trio, Epanchin, of course after that little affair with the poodle in the railway carriage, it was all UP between us."
"Poodle? What was that? And in a railway carriage? Dear me," said Nastasia, thoughtfully, as though trying to recall something to mind.
"Oh, just a silly, little occurrence, really not worth telling, about Princess Bielokonski's governess, Miss Smith, and — oh, it is really not worth telling!"
"No, no, we must have it!" cried Nastasia merrily.
"Yes, of course," said Ferdishenko. "C'est du nouveau."
"Ardalion," said Nina Alexandrovitch, entreatingly.
"Papa, you are wanted!" cried Colia.
"Well, it is a silly little story, in a few words," began the delighted general. "A couple of years ago, soon after the new railway was opened, I had to go somewhere or other on business. Well, I took a first-class ticket, sat down, and began to smoke, or rather CONTINUED to smoke, for I had lighted up before. I was alone in the carriage. Smoking is not allowed, but is not prohibited either; it is half allowed — so to speak, winked at. I had the window open."
"Suddenly, just before the whistle, in came two ladies with a little poodle, and sat down opposite to me; not bad-looking women; one was in light blue, the other in black silk. The poodle, a beauty with a silver collar, lay on light blue's knee. They looked haughtily about, and talked English together. I took no notice, just went on smoking. I observed that the ladies were getting angry — over my cigar, doubtless. One looked at me through her tortoise-shell eyeglass.
"I took no notice, because they never said a word. If they didn't like the cigar, why couldn't they say so? Not a word, not a hint! Suddenly, and without the very slightest suspicion of warning, 'light blue' seizes my cigar from between my fingers, and, wheugh! out of the window with it! Well, on flew the train, and I sat bewildered, and the young woman, tall and fair, and rather red in the face, too red, glared at me with flashing eyes.
"I didn't say a word, but with extreme courtesy, I may say with most refined courtesy, I reached my finger and thumb over towards the poodle, took it up delicately by the nape of the neck, and chucked it out of the window, after the cigar. The train went flying on, and the poodle's yells were lost in the distance."
"Oh, you naughty man!" cried Nastasia, laughing and clapping her hands like a child.
"Bravo!" said Ferdishenko. Ptitsin laughed too, though he had been very sorry to see the general appear. Even Colia laughed and said, "Bravo!"
"And I was right, truly right," cried the general, with warmth and solemnity, "for if cigars are forbidden in railway carriages, poodles are much more so."
"Well, and what did the lady do?" asked Nastasia, impatiently.
"She — ah, that's where all the mischief of it lies!" replied Ivolgin, frowning. "Without a word, as it were, of warning, she slapped me on the cheek! An extraordinary woman!"
The general dropped his eyes, and elevated his brows; shrugged his shoulders, tightened his lips, spread his hands, and remained silent. At last he blurted out:
"I lost my head!"
"Did you hit her?"
"No, oh no! — there was a great flare-up, but I didn't hit her! I had to struggle a little, purely to defend myself; but the very devil was in the business. It turned out that 'light blue' was an Englishwoman, governess or something, at Princess Bielokonski's, and the other woman was one of the old-maid princesses Bielokonski. Well, everybody knows what great friends the princess and Mrs. Epanchin are, so there was a pretty kettle of fish. All the Bielokonskis went into mourning for the poodle. Six princesses in tears, and the Englishwoman shrieking!
"Of course I wrote an apology, and called, but they would not receive either me or my apology, and the Epanchins cut me, too!"
"But wait," said Nastasia. "How is it that, five or six days since, I read exactly the same story in the paper, as happening between a Frenchman and an English girl? The cigar was snatched away exactly as you describe, and the poodle was chucked out of the window after it. The slapping came off, too, as in your case; and the girl's dress was light blue!"