"Oho, how careful one has to be with you, prince! Haven't you put a drop of poison in that remark now, eh? By the way — ha, ha, ha! — I forgot to ask, was I right in believing that you were a good deal struck yourself with Nastasia Philipovna."
"Are you in love with her?"
"And yet you flush up as red as a rosebud! Come — it's all right. I'm not going to laugh at you. Do you know she is a very virtuous woman? Believe it or not, as you like. You think she and Totski — not a bit of it, not a bit of it! Not for ever so long! Au revoir!"
Gania left the room in great good humour. The prince stayed behind, and meditated alone for a few minutes. At length, Colia popped his head in once more.
"I don't want any dinner, thanks, Colia. I had too good a lunch at General Epanchin's."
Colia came into the room and gave the prince a note; it was from the general and was carefully sealed up. It was clear from Colia's face how painful it was to him to deliver the missive. The prince read it, rose, and took his hat.
"It's only a couple of yards," said Colia, blushing.
"He's sitting there over his bottle — and how they can give him credit, I cannot understand. Don't tell mother I brought you the note, prince; I have sworn not to do it a thousand times, but I'm always so sorry for him. Don't stand on ceremony, give him some trifle, and let that end it."
"Come along, Colia, I want to see your father. I have an idea," said the prince.
Colia took the prince to a public-house in the Litaynaya, not far off. In one of the side rooms there sat at a table — looking like one of the regular guests of the establishment — Ardalion Alexandrovitch, with a bottle before him, and a newspaper on his knee. He was waiting for the prince, and no sooner did the latter appear than he began a long harangue about something or other; but so far gone was he that the prince could hardly understand a word.
"I have not got a ten-rouble note," said the prince; "but here is a twenty-five. Change it and give me back the fifteen, or I shall be left without a farthing myself."
"Oh, of course, of course; and you quite understand that I — "
"Yes; and I have another request to make, general. Have you ever been at Nastasia Philipovna's?"
"I? I? Do you mean me? Often, my friend, often! I only pretended I had not in order to avoid a painful subject. You saw today, you were a witness, that I did all that a kind, an indulgent father could do. Now a father of altogether another type shall step into the scene. You shall see; the old soldier shall lay bare this intrigue, or a shameless woman will force her way into a respectable and noble family."
"Yes, quite so. I wished to ask you whether you could show me the way to Nastasia Philipovna's tonight. I must go; I have business with her; I was not invited but I was introduced. Anyhow I am ready to trespass the laws of propriety if only I can get in somehow or other."
"My dear young friend, you have hit on my very idea. It was not for this rubbish I asked you to come over here" (he pocketed the money, however, at this point), "it was to invite your alliance in the campaign against Nastasia Philipovna tonight. How well it sounds, 'General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin.' That'll fetch her, I think, eh? Capital! We'll go at nine; there's time yet."
"Where does she live?"
"Oh, a long way off, near the Great Theatre, just in the square there — It won't be a large party."
The general sat on and on. He had ordered a fresh bottle when the prince arrived; this took him an hour to drink, and then he had another, and another, during the consumption of which he told pretty nearly the whole story of his life. The prince was in despair. He felt that though he had but applied to this miserable old drunkard because he saw no other way of getting to Nastasia Philipovna's, yet he had been very wrong to put the slightest confidence in such a man.
At last he rose and declared that he would wait no longer. The general rose too, drank the last drops that he could squeeze out of the bottle, and staggered into the street.
Muishkin began to despair. He could not imagine how he had been so foolish as to trust this man. He only wanted one thing, and that was to get to Nastasia Philipovna's, even at the cost of a certain amount of impropriety. But now the scandal threatened to be more than he had bargained for. By this time Ardalion Alexandrovitch was quite intoxicated, and he kept his companion listening while he discoursed eloquently and pathetically on subjects of all kinds, interspersed with torrents of recrimination against the members of his family. He insisted that all his troubles were caused by their bad conduct, and time alone would put an end to them.
At last they reached the Litaynaya. The thaw increased steadily, a warm, unhealthy wind blew through the streets, vehicles splashed through the mud, and the iron shoes of horses and mules rang on the paving stones. Crowds of melancholy people plodded wearily along the footpaths, with here and there a drunken man among them.
"Do you see those brightly-lighted windows?" said the general. "Many of my old comrades-in-arms live about here, and I, who served longer, and suffered more than any of them, am walking on foot to the house of a woman of rather questionable reputation! A man, look you, who has thirteen bullets on his breast! . . . You don't believe it? Well, I can assure you it was entirely on my account that Pirogoff telegraphed to Paris, and left Sebastopol at the greatest risk during the siege. Nelaton, the Tuileries surgeon, demanded a safe conduct, in the name of science, into the besieged city in order to attend my wounds. The government knows all about it. 'That's the Ivolgin with thirteen bullets in him!' That's how they speak of me . . . . Do you see that house, prince? One of my old friends lives on the first floor, with his large family. In this and five other houses, three overlooking Nevsky, two in the Morskaya, are all that remain of my personal friends. Nina Alexandrovna gave them up long ago, but I keep in touch with them still . . . I may say I find refreshment in this little coterie, in thus meeting my old acquaintances and subordinates, who worship me still, in spite of all. General Sokolovitch (by the way, I have not called on him lately, or seen Anna Fedorovna) . . . You know, my dear prince, when a person does not receive company himself, he gives up going to other people's houses involuntarily. And yet . . . well . . . you look as if you didn't believe me . . . . Well now, why should I not present the son of my old friend and companion to this delightful family — General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin? You will see a lovely girl — what am I saying — a lovely girl? No, indeed, two, three! Ornaments of this city and of society: beauty, education, culture — the woman question — poetry — everything! Added to which is the fact that each one will have a dot of at least eighty thousand roubles. No bad thing, eh? . . . In a word I absolutely must introduce you to them: it is a duty, an obligation. General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin. Tableau!"
"At once? Now? You must have forgotten . . . " began the prince.
"No, I have forgotten nothing. Come! This is the house — up this magnificent staircase. I am surprised not to see the porter, but . . . . it is a holiday . . . and the man has gone off . . . Drunken fool! Why have they not got rid of him? Sokolovitch owes all the happiness he has had in the service and in his private life to me, and me alone, but . . . here we are."