THE prince observed with great surprise, as he approached his villa, accompanied by Rogojin, that a large number of people were assembled on his verandah, which was brilliantly lighted up. The company seemed merry and were noisily laughing and talking — even quarrelling, to judge from the sounds. At all events they were clearly enjoying themselves, and the prince observed further on closer investigation — that all had been drinking champagne. To judge from the lively condition of some of the party, it was to be supposed that a considerable quantity of champagne had been consumed already.
All the guests were known to the prince; but the curious part of the matter was that they had all arrived on the same evening, as though with one accord, although he had only himself recollected the fact that it was his birthday a few moments since.
"You must have told somebody you were going to trot out the champagne, and that's why they are all come!" muttered Rogojin, as the two entered the verandah. "We know all about that! You've only to whistle and they come up in shoals!" he continued, almost angrily. He was doubtless thinking of his own late experiences with his boon companions.
All surrounded the prince with exclamations of welcome, and, on hearing that it was his birthday, with cries of congratulation and delight; many of them were very noisy.
The presence of certain of those in the room surprised the prince vastly, but the guest whose advent filled him with the greatest wonder — almost amounting to alarm — was Evgenie Pavlovitch. The prince could not believe his eyes when he beheld the latter, and could not help thinking that something was wrong.
Lebedeff ran up promptly to explain the arrival of all these gentlemen. He was himself somewhat intoxicated, but the prince gathered from his long-winded periods that the party had assembled quite naturally, and accidentally.
First of all Hippolyte had arrived, early in the evening, and feeling decidedly better, had determined to await the prince on the verandah. There Lebedeff had joined him, and his household had followed — that is, his daughters and General Ivolgin. Burdovsky had brought Hippolyte, and stayed on with him. Gania and Ptitsin had dropped in accidentally later on; then came Keller, and he and Colia insisted on having champagne. Evgenie Pavlovitch had only dropped in half an hour or so ago. Lebedeff had served the champagne readily.
"My own though, prince, my own, mind," he said, "and there'll be some supper later on; my daughter is getting it ready now. Come and sit down, prince, we are all waiting for you, we want you with us. Fancy what we have been discussing! You know the question, 'to be or not to be,' — out of Hamlet! A contemporary theme! Quite up-to-date! Mr. Hippolyte has been eloquent to a degree. He won't go to bed, but he has only drunk a little champagne, and that can't do him any harm. Come along, prince, and settle the question. Everyone is waiting for you, sighing for the light of your luminous intelligence . . . "
The prince noticed the sweet, welcoming look on Vera Lebedeff's face, as she made her way towards him through the crowd. He held out his hand to her. She took it, blushing with delight, and wished him "a happy life from that day forward." Then she ran off to the kitchen, where her presence was necessary to help in the preparations for supper. Before the prince's arrival she had spent some time on the terrace, listening eagerly to the conversation, though the visitors, mostly under the influence of wine, were discussing abstract subjects far beyond her comprehension. In the next room her younger sister lay on a wooden chest, sound asleep, with her mouth wide open; but the boy, Lebedeff's son, had taken up his position close beside Colia and Hippolyte, his face lit up with interest in the conversation of his father and the rest, to which he would willingly have listened for ten hours at a stretch.
"I have waited for you on purpose, and am very glad to see you arrive so happy," said Hippolyte, when the prince came forward to press his hand, immediately after greeting Vera.
"And how do you know that I am 'so happy'?
"I can see it by your face! Say 'how do you do' to the others, and come and sit down here, quick — I've been waiting for you!" he added, accentuating the fact that he had waited. On the prince's asking, "Will it not be injurious to you to sit out so late?" he replied that he could not believe that he had thought himself dying three days or so ago, for he never had felt better than this evening.
Burdovsky next jumped up and explained that he had come in by accident, having escorted Hippolyte from town. He murmured that he was glad he had "written nonsense" in his letter, and then pressed the prince's hand warmly and sat down again.
The prince approached Evgenie Pavlovitch last of all. The latter immediately took his arm.
"I have a couple of words to say to you," he began, "and those on a very important matter; let's go aside for a minute or two."
"Just a couple of words!" whispered another voice in the prince's other ear, and another hand took his other arm. Muishkin turned, and to his great surprise observed a red, flushed face and a droll-looking figure which he recognized at once as that of Ferdishenko. Goodness knows where he had turned up from!
"Do you remember Ferdishenko?" he asked.
"Where have you dropped from?" cried the prince.
"He is sorry for his sins now, prince," cried Keller. "He did not want to let you know he was here; he was hidden over there in the corner, — but he repents now, he feels his guilt."
"Why, what has he done?"
"I met him outside and brought him in — he's a gentleman who doesn't often allow his friends to see him, of late — but he's sorry now."
"Delighted, I'm sure! — I'll come back directly, gentlemen, — sit down there with the others, please, — excuse me one moment," said the host, getting away with difficulty in order to follow Evgenie.
"You are very gay here," began the latter, "and I have had quite a pleasant half-hour while I waited for you. Now then, my dear Lef Nicolaievitch, this is what's the matter. I've arranged it all with Moloftsoff, and have just come in to relieve your mind on that score. You need be under no apprehensions. He was very sensible, as he should be, of course, for I think he was entirely to blame himself."
"The young fellow whose arms you held, don't you know? He was so wild with you that he was going to send a friend to you tomorrow morning."
"Of course it is nonsense, and in nonsense it would have ended, doubtless; but you know these fellows, they — "
"Excuse me, but I think you must have something else that you wished to speak about, Evgenie Pavlovitch?"
"Of course, I have!" said the other, laughing. "You see, my dear fellow, tomorrow, very early in the morning, I must be off to town about this unfortunate business (my uncle, you know!). Just imagine, my dear sir, it is all true — word for word — and, of course, everybody knew it excepting myself. All this has been such a blow to me that I have not managed to call in at the Epanchins'. Tomorrow I shall not see them either, because I shall be in town. I may not be here for three days or more; in a word, my affairs are a little out of gear. But though my town business is, of course, most pressing, still I determined not to go away until I had seen you, and had a clear understanding with you upon certain points; and that without loss of time. I will wait now, if you will allow me, until the company departs; I may just as well, for I have nowhere else to go to, and I shall certainly not do any sleeping tonight; I'm far too excited. And finally, I must confess that, though I know it is bad form to pursue a man in this way, I have come to beg your friendship, my dear prince. You are an unusual sort of a person; you don't lie at every step, as some men do; in fact, you don't lie at all, and there is a matter in which I need a true and sincere friend, for I really may claim to be among the number of bona fide unfortunates just now."