"Dreadful crimes? But I can assure you that crimes just as dreadful, and probably more horrible, have occurred before our times, and at all times, and not only here in Russia, but everywhere else as well. And in my opinion it is not at all likely that such murders will cease to occur for a very long time to come. The only difference is that in former times there was less publicity, while now everyone talks and writes freely about such things — which fact gives the impression that such crimes have only now sprung into existence. That is where your mistake lies — an extremely natural mistake, I assure you, my dear fellow!" said Prince S.
"I know that there were just as many, and just as terrible, crimes before our times. Not long since I visited a convict prison and made acquaintance with some of the criminals. There were some even more dreadful criminals than this one we have been speaking of — men who have murdered a dozen of their fellow-creatures, and feel no remorse whatever. But what I especially noticed was this, that the very most hopeless and remorseless murderer — however hardened a criminal he may be — still KNOWS THAT HE IS A CRIMINAL; that is, he is conscious that he has acted wickedly, though he may feel no remorse whatever. And they were all like this. Those of whom Evgenie Pavlovitch has spoken, do not admit that they are criminals at all; they think they had a right to do what they did, and that they were even doing a good deed, perhaps. I consider there is the greatest difference between the two cases. And recollect — it was a YOUTH, at the particular age which is most helplessly susceptible to the distortion of ideas!"
Prince S. was now no longer smiling; he gazed at the prince in bewilderment.
Alexandra, who had seemed to wish to put in her word when the prince began, now sat silent, as though some sudden thought had caused her to change her mind about speaking.
Evgenie Pavlovitch gazed at him in real surprise, and this time his expression of face had no mockery in it whatever.
"What are you looking so surprised about, my friend?" asked Mrs. Epanchin, suddenly. "Did you suppose he was stupider than yourself, and was incapable of forming his own opinions, or what?"
"No! Oh no! Not at all!" said Evgenie. "But — how is it, prince, that you — (excuse the question, will you?) — if you are capable of observing and seeing things as you evidently do, how is it that you saw nothing distorted or perverted in that claim upon your property, which you acknowledged a day or two since; and which was full of arguments founded upon the most distorted views of right and wrong?"
"I'll tell you what, my friend," cried Mrs. Epanchin, of a sudden, "here are we all sitting here and imagining we are very clever, and perhaps laughing at the prince, some of us, and meanwhile he has received a letter this very day in which that same claimant renounces his claim, and begs the prince's pardon. There I we don't often get that sort of letter; and yet we are not ashamed to walk with our noses in the air before him."
"And Hippolyte has come down here to stay," said Colia, suddenly.
"What! has he arrived?" said the prince, starting up.
"Yes, I brought him down from town just after you had left the house."
"There now! It's just like him," cried Lizabetha Prokofievna, boiling over once more, and entirely oblivious of the fact that she had just taken the prince's part. "I dare swear that you went up to town yesterday on purpose to get the little wretch to do you the great honour of coming to stay at your house. You did go up to town, you know you did — you said so yourself! Now then, did you, or did you not, go down on your knees and beg him to come, confess!"
"No, he didn't, for I saw it all myself," said Colia. "On the contrary, Hippolyte kissed his hand twice and thanked him; and all the prince said was that he thought Hippolyte might feel better here in the country!"
"Don't, Colia, — what is the use of saying all that?" cried the prince, rising and taking his hat.
"Where are you going to now?" cried Mrs. Epanchin.
"Never mind about him now, prince," said Colia. "He is all right and taking a nap after the journey. He is very happy to be here; but I think perhaps it would be better if you let him alone for today, — he is very sensitive now that he is so ill — and he might be embarrassed if you show him too much attention at first. He is decidedly better today, and says he has not felt so well for the last six months, and has coughed much less, too."
The prince observed that Aglaya came out of her corner and approached the table at this point.
He did not dare look at her, but he was conscious, to the very tips of his fingers, that she was gazing at him, perhaps angrily; and that she had probably flushed up with a look of fiery indignation in her black eyes.
"It seems to me, Mr. Colia, that you were very foolish to bring your young friend down — if he is the same consumptive boy who wept so profusely, and invited us all to his own funeral," remarked Evgenie Pavlovitch. "He talked so eloquently about the blank wall outside his bedroom window, that I'm sure he will never support life here without it."
"I think so too," said Mrs. Epanchin; "he will quarrel with you, and be off," and she drew her workbox towards her with an air of dignity, quite oblivious of the fact that the family was about to start for a walk in the park.
"Yes, I remember he boasted about the blank wall in an extraordinary way," continued Evgenie, "and I feel that without that blank wall he will never be able to die eloquently; and he does so long to die eloquently!"
"Oh, you must forgive him the blank wall," said the prince, quietly. "He has come down to see a few trees now, poor fellow."
"Oh, I forgive him with all my heart; you may tell him so if you like," laughed Evgenie.
"I don't think you should take it quite like that," said the prince, quietly, and without removing his eyes from the carpet. "I think it is more a case of his forgiving you."
"Forgiving me! why so? What have I done to need his forgiveness?"
"If you don't understand, then — but of course, you do understand. He wished — he wished to bless you all round and to have your blessing — before he died — that's all."
"My dear prince," began Prince S., hurriedly, exchanging glances with some of those present, "you will not easily find heaven on earth, and yet you seem to expect to. Heaven is a difficult thing to find anywhere, prince; far more difficult than appears to that good heart of yours. Better stop this conversation, or we shall all be growing quite disturbed in our minds, and — "
"Let's go and hear the band, then," said Lizabetha Prokofievna, angrily rising from her place.
The rest of the company followed her example.