"Well, I'll change it, right or wrong; I'll say that you are not sceptical, but JEALOUS. There! you are deadly jealous of Gania, over a certain proud damsel! Come!" Colia jumped up, with these words, and burst out laughing. He laughed as he had perhaps never laughed before, and still more when he saw the prince flushing up to his temples. He was delighted that the prince should be jealous about Aglaya. However, he stopped immediately on seeing that the other was really hurt, and the conversation continued, very earnestly, for an hour or more.
Next day the prince had to go to town, on business. Returning in the afternoon, he happened upon General Epanchin at the station. The latter seized his hand, glancing around nervously, as if he were afraid of being caught in wrong-doing, and dragged him into a first-class compartment. He was burning to speak about something of importance.
"In the first place, my dear prince, don't be angry with me. I would have come to see you yesterday, but I didn't know how Lizabetha Prokofievna would take it. My dear fellow, my house is simply a hell just now, a sort of sphinx has taken up its abode there. We live in an atmosphere of riddles; I can't make head or tail of anything. As for you, I feel sure you are the least to blame of any of us, though you certainly have been the cause of a good deal of trouble. You see, it's all very pleasant to be a philanthropist; but it can be carried too far. Of course I admire kind-heartedness, and I esteem my wife, but — "
The general wandered on in this disconnected way for a long time; it was clear that he was much disturbed by some circumstance which he could make nothing of.
"It is plain to me, that YOU are not in it at all," he continued, at last, a little less vaguely, "but perhaps you had better not come to our house for a little while. I ask you in the friendliest manner, mind; just till the wind changes again. As for Evgenie Pavlovitch," he continued with some excitement, "the whole thing is a calumny, a dirty calumny. It is simply a plot, an intrigue, to upset our plans and to stir up a quarrel. You see, prince, I'll tell you privately, Evgenie and ourselves have not said a word yet, we have no formal understanding, we are in no way bound on either side, but the word may be said very soon, don't you see, VERY soon, and all this is most injurious, and is meant to be so. Why? I'm sure I can't tell you. She's an extraordinary woman, you see, an eccentric woman; I tell you I am so frightened of that woman that I can't sleep. What a carriage that was, and where did it come from, eh? I declare, I was base enough to suspect Evgenie at first; but it seems certain that that cannot be the case, and if so, why is she interfering here? That's the riddle, what does she want? Is it to keep Evgenie to herself? But, my dear fellow, I swear to you, I swear he doesn't even KNOW her, and as for those bills, why, the whole thing is an invention! And the familiarity of the woman! It's quite clear we must treat the impudent creature's attempt with disdain, and redouble our courtesy towards Evgenie. I told my wife so.
"Now I'll tell you my secret conviction. I'm certain that she's doing this to revenge herself on me, on account of the past, though I assure you that all the time I was blameless. I blush at the very idea. And now she turns up again like this, when I thought she had finally disappeared! Where's Rogojin all this time? I thought she was Mrs. Rogojin, long ago."
The old man was in a state of great mental perturbation. The whole of the journey, which occupied nearly an hour, he continued in this strain, putting questions and answering them himself, shrugging his shoulders, pressing the prince's hand, and assuring the latter that, at all events, he had no suspicion whatever of HIM. This last assurance was satisfactory, at all events. The general finished by informing him that Evgenie's uncle was head of one of the civil service departments, and rich, very rich, and a gourmand. "And, well, Heaven preserve him, of course — but Evgenie gets his money, don't you see? But, for all this, I'm uncomfortable, I don't know why. There's something in the air, I feel there's something nasty in the air, like a bat, and I'm by no means comfortable."
And it was not until the third day that the formal reconciliation between the prince and the Epanchins took place, as said before.
IT was seven in the evening, and the prince was just preparing to go out for a walk in the park, when suddenly Mrs. Epanchin appeared on the terrace.
"In the first place, don't dare to suppose," she began, "that I am going to apologize. Nonsense! You were entirely to blame."
The prince remained silent.
"Were you to blame, or not?"
"No, certainly not, no more than yourself, though at first I thought I was."
"Oh, very well, let's sit down, at all events, for I don't intend to stand up all day. And remember, if you say, one word about 'mischievous urchins,' I shall go away and break with you altogether. Now then, did you, or did you not, send a letter to Aglaya, a couple of months or so ago, about Easter-tide?"
"What for? What was your object? Show me the letter." Mrs. Epanchin's eyes flashed; she was almost trembling with impatience.
"I have not got the letter," said the prince, timidly, extremely surprised at the turn the conversation had taken. "If anyone has it, if it still exists, Aglaya Ivanovna must have it."
"No finessing, please. What did you write about?"
"I am not finessing, and I am not in the least afraid of telling you; but I don't see the slightest reason why I should not have written."
"Be quiet, you can talk afterwards! What was the letter about? Why are you blushing?"
The prince was silent. At last he spoke.
"I don't understand your thoughts, Lizabetha Prokofievna; but I can see that the fact of my having written is for some reason repugnant to you. You must admit that I have a perfect right to refuse to answer your questions; but, in order to show you that I am neither ashamed of the letter, nor sorry that I wrote it, and that I am not in the least inclined to blush about it" (here the prince's blushes redoubled), "I will repeat the substance of my letter, for I think I know it almost by heart."
So saying, the prince repeated the letter almost word for word, as he had written it.
"My goodness, what utter twaddle, and what may all this nonsense have signified, pray? If it had any meaning at all!" said Mrs. Epanchin, cuttingly, after having listened with great attention.
"I really don't absolutely know myself; I know my feeling was very sincere. I had moments at that time full of life and hope."
"What sort of hope?"
"It is difficult to explain, but certainly not the hopes you have in your mind. Hopes — well, in a word, hopes for the future, and a feeling of joy that THERE, at all events, I was not entirely a stranger and a foreigner. I felt an ecstasy in being in my native land once more; and one sunny morning I took up a pen and wrote her that letter, but why to HER, I don't quite know. Sometimes one longs to have a friend near, and I evidently felt the need of one then," added the prince, and paused.
"Are you in love with her?"
"N-no! I wrote to her as to a sister; I signed myself her brother."
"Oh yes, of course, on purpose! I quite understand."
"It is very painful to me to answer these questions, Lizabetha Prokofievna."
"I dare say it is; but that's no affair of mine. Now then, assure me truly as before Heaven, are you lying to me or not?"
"No, I am not lying."
"Are you telling the truth when you say you are not in love?"
"I believe it is the absolute truth."
"'I believe,' indeed! Did that mischievous urchin give it to her?"
"I asked Nicolai Ardalionovitch . . . "
"The urchin! the urchin!" interrupted Lizabetha Prokofievna in an angry voice. "I do not want to know if it were Nicolai Ardalionovitch! The urchin!"
"Nicolai Ardalionovitch . . . "
"The urchin, I tell you!"
"No, it was not the urchin: it was Nicolai Ardalionovitch," said the prince very firmly, but without raising his voice.
"Well, all right! All right, my dear! I shall put that down to your account."
She was silent a moment to get breath, and to recover her composure.
"Well! — and what's the meaning of the 'poor knight,' eh?"
"I don't know in the least; I wasn't present when the joke was made. It IS a joke. I suppose, and that's all."