THE young fellow accompanying the general was about twenty-eight, tall, and well built, with a handsome and clever face, and bright black eyes, full of fun and intelligence.
Aglaya did not so much as glance at the new arrivals, but went on with her recitation, gazing at the prince the while in an affected manner, and at him alone. It was clear to him that she was doing all this with some special object.
But the new guests at least somewhat eased his strained and uncomfortable position. Seeing them approaching, he rose from his chair, and nodding amicably to the general, signed to him not to interrupt the recitation. He then got behind his chair, and stood there with his left hand resting on the back of it. Thanks to this change of position, he was able to listen to the ballad with far less embarrassment than before. Mrs. Epanchin had also twice motioned to the new arrivals to be quiet, and stay where they were.
The prince was much interested in the young man who had just entered. He easily concluded that this was Evgenie Pavlovitch Radomski, of whom he had already heard mention several times. He was puzzled, however, by the young man's plain clothes, for he had always heard of Evgenie Pavlovitch as a military man. An ironical smile played on Evgenie's lips all the while the recitation was proceeding, which showed that he, too, was probably in the secret of the 'poor knight' joke. But it had become quite a different matter with Aglaya. All the affectation of manner which she had displayed at the beginning disappeared as the ballad proceeded. She spoke the lines in so serious and exalted a manner, and with so much taste, that she even seemed to justify the exaggerated solemnity with which she had stepped forward. It was impossible to discern in her now anything but a deep feeling for the spirit of the poem which she had undertaken to interpret.
Her eyes were aglow with inspiration, and a slight tremor of rapture passed over her lovely features once or twice. She continued to recite:
"Once there came a vision glorious, Mystic, dreadful, wondrous fair; Burned itself into his spirit, And abode for ever there!
"Never more — from that sweet moment — Gazed he on womankind; He was dumb to love and wooing And to all their graces blind.
"Full of love for that sweet vision, Brave and pure he took the field; With his blood he stained the letters N. P. B. upon his shield.
"'Lumen caeli, sancta Rosa!' Shouting on the foe he fell, And like thunder rang his war-cry O'er the cowering infidel.
"Then within his distant castle, Home returned, he dreamed his days-Silent, sad, — and when death took him He was mad, the legend says."
When recalling all this afterwards the prince could not for the life of him understand how to reconcile the beautiful, sincere, pure nature of the girl with the irony of this jest. That it was a jest there was no doubt whatever; he knew that well enough, and had good reason, too, for his conviction; for during her recitation of the ballad Aglaya had deliberately changed the letters A. N. B. into N. P. B. He was quite sure she had not done this by accident, and that his ears had not deceived him. At all events her performance — which was a joke, of course, if rather a crude one, — was premeditated. They had evidently talked (and laughed) over the 'poor knight' for more than a month.
Yet Aglaya had brought out these letters N. P. B. not only without the slightest appearance of irony, or even any particular accentuation, but with so even and unbroken an appearance of seriousness that assuredly anyone might have supposed that these initials were the original ones written in the ballad. The thing made an uncomfortable impression upon the prince. Of course Mrs. Epanchin saw nothing either in the change of initials or in the insinuation embodied therein. General Epanchin only knew that there was a recitation of verses going on, and took no further interest in the matter. Of the rest of the audience, many had understood the allusion and wondered both at the daring of the lady and at the motive underlying it, but tried to show no sign of their feelings. But Evgenie Pavlovitch (as the prince was ready to wager) both comprehended and tried his best to show that he comprehended; his smile was too mocking to leave any doubt on that point.
"How beautiful that is!" cried Mrs. Epanchin, with sincere admiration. "Whose is it?"
"Pushkin's, mama, of course! Don't disgrace us all by showing your ignorance," said Adelaida.
"As soon as we reach home give it to me to read."
"I don't think we have a copy of Pushkin in the house."
"There are a couple of torn volumes somewhere; they have been lying about from time immemorial," added Alexandra.
"Send Feodor or Alexey up by the very first train to buy a copy, then. — Aglaya, come here — kiss me, dear, you recited beautifully! but," she added in a whisper, "if you were sincere I am sorry for you. If it was a joke, I do not approve of the feelings which prompted you to do it, and in any case you would have done far better not to recite it at all. Do you understand? — Now come along, young woman; we've sat here too long. I'll speak to you about this another time."
Meanwhile the prince took the opportunity of greeting General Epanchin, and the general introduced Evgenie Pavlovitch to him.
"I caught him up on the way to your house," explained the general. "He had heard that we were all here."
"Yes, and I heard that you were here, too," added Evgenie Pavlovitch; "and since I had long promised myself the pleasure of seeking not only your acquaintance but your friendship, I did not wish to waste time, but came straight on. I am sorry to hear that you are unwell."
"Oh, but I'm quite well now, thank you, and very glad to make your acquaintance. Prince S. has often spoken to me about you," said Muishkin, and for an instant the two men looked intently into one another's eyes.
The prince remarked that Evgenie Pavlovitch's plain clothes had evidently made a great impression upon the company present, so much so that all other interests seemed to be effaced before this surprising fact.
His change of dress was evidently a matter of some importance. Adelaida and Alexandra poured out a stream of questions; Prince S., a relative of the young man, appeared annoyed; and Ivan Fedorovitch quite excited. Aglaya alone was not interested. She merely looked closely at Evgenie for a minute, curious perhaps as to whether civil or military clothes became him best, then turned away and paid no more attention to him or his costume. Lizabetha Prokofievna asked no questions, but it was clear that she was uneasy, and the prince fancied that Evgenie was not in her good graces.
"He has astonished me," said Ivan Fedorovitch. "I nearly fell down with surprise. I could hardly believe my eyes when I met him in Petersburg just now. Why this haste? That's what I want to know. He has always said himself that there is no need to break windows."
Evgenie Pavlovitch remarked here that he had spoken of his intention of leaving the service long ago. He had, however, always made more or less of a joke about it, so no one had taken him seriously. For that matter he joked about everything, and his friends never knew what to believe, especially if he did not wish them to understand him.
"I have only retired for a time," said he, laughing. "For a few months; at most for a year."
"But there is no necessity for you to retire at all," complained the general, "as far as I know."
"I want to go and look after my country estates. You advised me to do that yourself," was the reply. "And then I wish to go abroad."
After a few more expostulations, the conversation drifted into other channels, but the prince, who had been an attentive listener, thought all this excitement about so small a matter very curious. "There must be more in it than appears," he said to himself.
"I see the 'poor knight' has come on the scene again," said Evgenie Pavlovitch, stepping to Aglaya's side.
To the amazement of the prince, who overheard the remark, Aglaya looked haughtily and inquiringly at the questioner, as though she would give him to know, once for all, that there could be no talk between them about the 'poor knight,' and that she did not understand his question.
"But not now! It is too late to send to town for a Pushkin now. It is much too late, I say!" Colia was exclaiming in a loud voice. "I have told you so at least a hundred times."