THE prince suddenly approached Evgenie Pavlovitch.
"Evgenie Pavlovitch," he said, with strange excitement and seizing the latter's hand in his own, "be assured that I esteem you as a generous and honourable man, in spite of everything. Be assured of that."
Evgenie Pavlovitch fell back a step in astonishment. For one moment it was all he could do to restrain himself from bursting out laughing; but, looking closer, he observed that the prince did not seem to be quite himself; at all events, he was in a very curious state.
"I wouldn't mind betting, prince," he cried, "that you did not in the least mean to say that, and very likely you meant to address someone else altogether. What is it? Are you feeling unwell or anything?"
"Very likely, extremely likely, and you must be a very close observer to detect the fact that perhaps I did not intend to come up to YOU at all."
So saying he smiled strangely; but suddenly and excitedly he began again:
"Don't remind me of what I have done or said. Don't! I am very much ashamed of myself, I — "
"Why, what have you done? I don't understand you."
"I see you are ashamed of me, Evgenie Pavlovitch; you are blushing for me; that's a sign of a good heart. Don't be afraid; I shall go away directly."
"What's the matter with him? Do his fits begin like that?" said Lizabetha Prokofievna, in a high state of alarm, addressing Colia.
"No, no, Lizabetha Prokofievna, take no notice of me. I am not going to have a fit. I will go away directly; but I know I am afflicted. I was twenty-four years an invalid, you see — the first twenty-four years of my life — so take all I do and say as the sayings and actions of an invalid. I'm going away directly, I really am — don't be afraid. I am not blushing, for I don't think I need blush about it, need I? But I see that I am out of place in society — society is better without me. It's not vanity, I assure you. I have thought over it all these last three days, and I have made up my mind that I ought to unbosom myself candidly before you at the first opportunity. There are certain things, certain great ideas, which I must not so much as approach, as Prince S. has just reminded me, or I shall make you all laugh. I have no sense of proportion, I know; my words and gestures do not express my ideas — they are a humiliation and abasement of the ideas, and therefore, I have no right — and I am too sensitive. Still, I believe I am beloved in this household, and esteemed far more than I deserve. But I can't help knowing that after twenty-four years of illness there must be some trace left, so that it is impossible for people to refrain from laughing at me sometimes; don't you think so?"
He seemed to pause for a reply, for some verdict, as it were, and looked humbly around him.
All present stood rooted to the earth with amazement at this unexpected and apparently uncalled-for outbreak; but the poor prince's painful and rambling speech gave rise to a strange episode.
"Why do you say all this here?" cried Aglaya, suddenly. "Why do you talk like this to THEM?"
She appeared to be in the last stages of wrath and irritation; her eyes flashed. The prince stood dumbly and blindly before her, and suddenly grew pale.
"There is not one of them all who is worthy of these words of yours," continued Aglaya. "Not one of them is worth your little finger, not one of them has heart or head to compare with yours! You are more honest than all, and better, nobler, kinder, wiser than all. There are some here who are unworthy to bend and pick up the handkerchief you have just dropped. Why do you humiliate yourself like this, and place yourself lower than these people? Why do you debase yourself before them? Why have you no pride?"
"My God! Who would ever have believed this?" cried Mrs. Epanchin, wringing her hands.
"Hurrah for the 'poor knight'!" cried Colia.
"Be quiet! How dare they laugh at me in your house?" said Aglaya, turning sharply on her mother in that hysterical frame of mind that rides recklessly over every obstacle and plunges blindly through proprieties. "Why does everyone, everyone worry and torment me? Why have they all been bullying me these three days about you, prince? I will not marry you — never, and under no circumstances! Know that once and for all; as if anyone could marry an absurd creature like you! Just look in the glass and see what you look like, this very moment! Why, WHY do they torment me and say I am going to marry you? You must know it; you are in the plot with them!"
"No one ever tormented you on the subject," murmured Adelaida, aghast.
"No one ever thought of such a thing! There has never been a word said about it!" cried Alexandra.
"Who has been annoying her? Who has been tormenting the child? Who could have said such a thing to her? Is she raving?" cried Lizabetha Prokofievna, trembling with rage, to the company in general.
"Every one of them has been saying it — every one of them — all these three days! And I will never, never marry him!"
So saying, Aglaya burst into bitter tears, and, hiding her face in her handkerchief, sank back into a chair.
"But he has never even — "
"I have never asked you to marry me, Aglaya Ivanovna!" said the prince, of a sudden.
"WHAT?" cried Mrs. Epanchin, raising her hands in horror. "WHAT'S that?"
She could not believe her ears.
"I meant to say — I only meant to say," said the prince, faltering, "I merely meant to explain to Aglaya Ivanovna — to have the honour to explain, as it were — that I had no intention — never had — to ask the honour of her hand. I assure you I am not guilty, Aglaya Ivanovna, I am not, indeed. I never did wish to — I never thought of it at all — and never shall — you'll see it yourself — you may be quite assured of it. Some wicked person has been maligning me to you; but it's all right. Don't worry about it."
So saying, the prince approached Aglaya.
She took the handkerchief from her face, glanced keenly at him, took in what he had said, and burst out laughing — such a merry, unrestrained laugh, so hearty and gay, that. Adelaida could not contain herself. She, too, glanced at the prince's panic-stricken countenance, then rushed at her sister, threw her arms round her neck, and burst into as merry a fit of laughter as Aglaya's own. They laughed together like a couple of school-girls. Hearing and seeing this, the prince smiled happily, and in accents of relief and joy, he exclaimed "Well, thank God — thank God!"
Alexandra now joined in, and it looked as though the three sisters were going to laugh on for ever.
"They are insane," muttered Lizabetha Prokofievna. "Either they frighten one out of one's wits, or else — "
But Prince S. was laughing now, too, so was Evgenie Pavlovitch, so was Colia, and so was the prince himself, who caught the infection as he looked round radiantly upon the others.