"No, he . . . "
"Perhaps he is drunk? Your company is rather peculiar," she added, with a glance at the other guests . . . .
"But what a pretty girl! Who is she?"
"That is Lebedeff's daughter — Vera Lukianovna."
"Indeed? She looks very sweet. I should like to make her acquaintance."
The words were hardly out of her mouth, when Lebedeff dragged Vera forward, in order to present her.
"Orphans, poor orphans!" he began in a pathetic voice.
"The child she carries is an orphan, too. She is Vera's sister, my daughter Luboff. The day this babe was born, six weeks ago, my wife died, by the will of God Almighty . . . . Yes . . . Vera takes her mother's place, though she is but her sister . . . nothing more . . . nothing more . . . "
"And you! You are nothing more than a fool, if you'll excuse me! Well! well! you know that yourself, I expect," said the lady indignantly.
Lebedeff bowed low. "It is the truth," he replied, with extreme respect.
"Oh, Mr. Lebedeff, I am told you lecture on the Apocalypse. Is it true?" asked Aglaya.
"Yes, that is so . . . for the last fifteen years."
"I have heard of you, and I think read of you in the newspapers."
"No, that was another commentator, whom the papers named. He is dead, however, and I have taken his place," said the other, much delighted.
"We are neighbours, so will you be so kind as to come over one day and explain the Apocalypse to me?" said Aglaya. "I do not understand it in the least."
"Allow me to warn you," interposed General Ivolgin, "that he is the greatest charlatan on earth." He had taken the chair next to the girl, and was impatient to begin talking. "No doubt there are pleasures and amusements peculiar to the country," he continued, "and to listen to a pretended student holding forth on the book of the Revelations may be as good as any other. It may even be original. But . . . you seem to be looking at me with some surprise — may I introduce myself — General Ivolgin — I carried you in my arms as a baby — "
"Delighted, I'm sure," said Aglaya; "I am acquainted with Varvara Ardalionovna and Nina Alexandrovna." She was trying hard to restrain herself from laughing.
Mrs. Epanchin flushed up; some accumulation of spleen in her suddenly needed an outlet. She could not bear this General Ivolgin whom she had once known, long ago — in society.
"You are deviating from the truth, sir, as usual!" she remarked, boiling over with indignation; "you never carried her in your life!"
"You have forgotten, mother," said Aglaya, suddenly. "He really did carry me about, — in Tver, you know. I was six years old, I remember. He made me a bow and arrow, and I shot a pigeon. Don't you remember shooting a pigeon, you and I, one day?"
"Yes, and he made me a cardboard helmet, and a little wooden sword — I remember!" said Adelaida.
"Yes, I remember too!" said Alexandra. "You quarrelled about the wounded pigeon, and Adelaida was put in the corner, and stood there with her helmet and sword and all."
The poor general had merely made the remark about having carried Aglaya in his arms because he always did so begin a conversation with young people. But it happened that this time he had really hit upon the truth, though he had himself entirely forgotten the fact. But when Adelaida and Aglaya recalled the episode of the pigeon, his mind became filled with memories, and it is impossible to describe how this poor old man, usually half drunk, was moved by the recollection.
"I remember — I remember it all!" he cried. "I was captain then. You were such a lovely little thing — Nina Alexandrovna! — Gania, listen! I was received then by General Epanchin."
"Yes, and look what you have come to now!" interrupted Mrs. Epanchin. "However, I see you have not quite drunk your better feelings away. But you've broken your wife's heart, sir — and instead of looking after your children, you have spent your time in public-houses and debtors' prisons! Go away, my friend, stand in some corner and weep, and bemoan your fallen dignity, and perhaps God will forgive you yet! Go, go! I'm serious! There's nothing so favourable for repentance as to think of the past with feelings of remorse!"
There was no need to repeat that she was serious. The general, like all drunkards, was extremely emotional and easily touched by recollections of his better days. He rose and walked quietly to the door, so meekly that Mrs. Epanchin was instantly sorry for him.
"Ardalion Alexandrovitch," she cried after him, "wait a moment, we are all sinners! When you feel that your conscience reproaches you a little less, come over to me and we'll have a talk about the past! I dare say I am fifty times more of a sinner than you are! And now go, go, good-bye, you had better not stay here!" she added, in alarm, as he turned as though to come back.
"Don't go after him just now, Colia, or he'll be vexed, and the benefit of this moment will be lost!" said the prince, as the boy was hurrying out of the room.
"Quite true! Much better to go in half an hour or so said Mrs. Epanchin.
"That's what comes of telling the truth for once in one's life!" said Lebedeff. "It reduced him to tears."
"Come, come! the less YOU say about it the better — to judge from all I have heard about you!" replied Mrs. Epanchin.
The prince took the first opportunity of informing the Epanchin ladies that he had intended to pay them a visit that day, if they had not themselves come this afternoon, and Lizabetha Prokofievna replied that she hoped he would still do so.
By this time some of the visitors had disappeared.
Ptitsin had tactfully retreated to Lebedeff's wing; and Gania soon followed him.
The latter had behaved modestly, but with dignity, on this occasion of his first meeting with the Epanchins since the rupture. Twice Mrs. Epanchin had deliberately examined him from head to foot; but he had stood fire without flinching. He was certainly much changed, as anyone could see who had not met him for some time; and this fact seemed to afford Aglaya a good deal of satisfaction.
"That was Gavrila Ardalionovitch, who just went out, wasn't it?" she asked suddenly, interrupting somebody else's conversation to make the remark.
"Yes, it was," said the prince.
"I hardly knew him; he is much changed, and for the better!"
"I am very glad," said the prince.
"He has been very ill," added Varia.
"How has he changed for the better?" asked Mrs. Epanchin. "I don't see any change for the better! What's better in him? Where did you get THAT idea from? WHAT'S better?"