The prince followed quietly, making no further objection for fear of irritating the old man. At the same time he fervently hoped that General Sokolovitch and his family would fade away like a mirage in the desert, so that the visitors could escape, by merely returning downstairs. But to his horror he saw that General Ivolgin was quite familiar with the house, and really seemed to have friends there. At every step he named some topographical or biographical detail that left nothing to be desired on the score of accuracy. When they arrived at last, on the first floor, and the general turned to ring the bell to the right, the prince decided to run away, but a curious incident stopped him momentarily.
"You have made a mistake, general," said he. "The name on the door is Koulakoff, and you were going to see General Sokolovitch."
"Koulakoff . . . Koulakoff means nothing. This is Sokolovitch's flat, and I am ringing at his door . . . . What do I care for Koulakoff? . . . Here comes someone to open."
In fact, the door opened directly, and the footman in formed the visitors that the family were all away.
"What a pity! What a pity! It's just my luck!" repeated Ardalion Alexandrovitch over and over again, in regretful tones. "When your master and mistress return, my man, tell them that General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin desired to present themselves, and that they were extremely sorry, excessively grieved . . . "
Just then another person belonging to the household was seen at the back of the hall. It was a woman of some forty years, dressed in sombre colours, probably a housekeeper or a governess. Hearing the names she came forward with a look of suspicion on her face.
"Marie Alexandrovna is not at home," said she, staring hard at the general. "She has gone to her mother's, with Alexandra Michailovna."
"Alexandra Michailovna out, too! How disappointing! Would you believe it, I am always so unfortunate! May I most respectfully ask you to present my compliments to Alexandra Michailovna, and remind her . . . tell her, that with my whole heart I wish for her what she wished for herself on Thursday evening, while she was listening to Chopin's Ballade. She will remember. I wish it with all sincerity. General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin!"
The woman's face changed; she lost her suspicious expression.
"I will not fail to deliver your message," she replied, and bowed them out.
As they went downstairs the general regretted repeatedly that he had failed to introduce the prince to his friends.
"You know I am a bit of a poet," said he. "Have you noticed it? The poetic soul, you know." Then he added suddenly — "But after all . . . after all I believe we made a mistake this time! I remember that the Sokolovitch's live in another house, and what is more, they are just now in Moscow. Yes, I certainly was at fault. However, it is of no consequence."
"Just tell me," said the prince in reply, "may I count still on your assistance? Or shall I go on alone to see Nastasia Philipovna?"
"Count on my assistance? Go alone? How can you ask me that question, when it is a matter on which the fate of my family so largely depends? You don't know Ivolgin, my friend. To trust Ivolgin is to trust a rock; that's how the first squadron I commanded spoke of me. 'Depend upon Ivolgin,' said they all, 'he is as steady as a rock.' But, excuse me, I must just call at a house on our way, a house where I have found consolation and help in all my trials for years."
"You are going home?"
"No . . . I wish . . . to visit Madame Terentieff, the widow of Captain Terentieff, my old subordinate and friend. She helps me to keep up my courage, and to bear the trials of my domestic life, and as I have an extra burden on my mind today . . . "
"It seems to me," interrupted the prince, "that I was foolish to trouble you just now. However, at present you . . . Good-bye!"
"Indeed, you must not go away like that, young man, you must not!" cried the general. "My friend here is a widow, the mother of a family; her words come straight from her heart, and find an echo in mine. A visit to her is merely an affair of a few minutes; I am quite at home in her house. I will have a wash, and dress, and then we can drive to the Grand Theatre. Make up your mind to spend the evening with me . . . . We are just there — that's the house . . . Why, Colia! you here! Well, is Marfa Borisovna at home or have you only just come?"
"Oh no! I have been here a long while," replied Colia, who was at the front door when the general met him. "I am keeping Hippolyte company. He is worse, and has been in bed all day. I came down to buy some cards. Marfa Borisovna expects you. But what a state you are in, father!" added the boy, noticing his father's unsteady gait. "Well, let us go in."
On meeting Colia the prince determined to accompany the general, though he made up his mind to stay as short a time as possible. He wanted Colia, but firmly resolved to leave the general behind. He could not forgive himself for being so simple as to imagine that Ivolgin would be of any use. The three climbed up the long staircase until they reached the fourth floor where Madame Terentieff lived.
"You intend to introduce the prince?" asked Colia, as they went up.
"Yes, my boy. I wish to present him: General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin! But what's the matter? . . . what? . . . How is Marfa Borisovna?"
"You know, father, you would have done much better not to come at all! She is ready to eat you up! You have not shown yourself since the day before yesterday and she is expecting the money. Why did you promise her any? You are always the same! Well, now you will have to get out of it as best you can."
They stopped before a somewhat low doorway on the fourth floor. Ardalion Alexandrovitch, evidently much out of countenance, pushed Muishkin in front.
"I will wait here," he stammered. "I should like to surprise her. . . . ."
Colia entered first, and as the door stood open, the mistress of the house peeped out. The surprise of the general's imagination fell very flat, for she at once began to address him in terms of reproach.
Marfa Borisovna was about forty years of age. She wore a dressing-jacket, her feet were in slippers, her face painted, and her hair was in dozens of small plaits. No sooner did she catch sight of Ardalion Alexandrovitch than she screamed:
"There he is, that wicked, mean wretch! I knew it was he! My heart misgave me!"
The old man tried to put a good face on the affair.
"Come, let us go in — it's all right," he whispered in the prince's ear.
But it was more serious than he wished to think. As soon as the visitors had crossed the low dark hall, and entered the narrow reception-room, furnished with half a dozen cane chairs, and two small card-tables, Madame Terentieff, in the shrill tones habitual to her, continued her stream of invectives.
"Are you not ashamed? Are you not ashamed? You barbarian! You tyrant! You have robbed me of all I possessed — you have sucked my bones to the marrow. How long shall I be your victim? Shameless, dishonourable man!"
"Marfa Borisovna! Marfa Borisovna! Here is . . . the Prince Muishkin! General Ivolgin and Prince Muishkin," stammered the disconcerted old man.
"Would you believe," said the mistress of the house, suddenly addressing the prince, "would you believe that that man has not even spared my orphan children? He has stolen everything I possessed, sold everything, pawned everything; he has left me nothing — nothing! What am I to do with your IOU's, you cunning, unscrupulous rogue? Answer, devourer I answer, heart of stone! How shall I feed my orphans? with what shall I nourish them? And now he has come, he is drunk! He can scarcely stand. How, oh how, have I offended the Almighty, that He should bring this curse upon me! Answer, you worthless villain, answer!"