He laughed again.
"But the trouble is," said the prince, after a slight pause for reflection, "that goodness only knows when this party will break up. Hadn't we better stroll into the park? I'll excuse myself, there's no danger of their going away."
"No, no! I have my reasons for wishing them not to suspect us of being engaged in any specially important conversation. There are gentry present who are a little too much interested in us. You are not aware of that perhaps, prince? It will be a great deal better if they see that we are friendly just in an ordinary way. They'll all go in a couple of hours, and then I'll ask you to give me twenty minutes-half an hour at most."
"By all means! I assure you I am delighted — you need not have entered into all these explanations. As for your remarks about friendship with me — thanks, very much indeed. You must excuse my being a little absent this evening. Do you know, I cannot somehow be attentive to anything just now?"
"I see, I see," said Evgenie, smiling gently. His mirth seemed very near the surface this evening.
"What do you see?" said the prince, startled.
"I don't want you to suspect that I have simply come here to deceive you and pump information out of you!" said Evgenie, still smiling, and without making any direct reply to the question.
"Oh, but I haven't the slightest doubt that you did come to pump me," said the prince, laughing himself, at last; "and I dare say you are quite prepared to deceive me too, so far as that goes. But what of that? I'm not afraid of you; besides, you'll hardly believe it, I feel as though I really didn't care a scrap one way or the other, just now! — And-and-and as you are a capital fellow, I am convinced of that, I dare say we really shall end by being good friends. I like you very much Evgenie Pavlovitch; I consider you a very good fellow indeed."
"Well, in any case, you are a most delightful man to have to deal with, be the business what it may," concluded Evgenie. "Come along now, I'll drink a glass to your health. I'm charmed to have entered into alliance with you. By-the-by," he added suddenly, "has this young Hippolyte come down to stay with you?"
"He's not going to die at once, I should think, is he?"
"Oh, I don't know. I've been half an hour here with him, and he — "
Hippolyte had been waiting for the prince all this time, and had never ceased looking at him and Evgenie Pavlovitch as they conversed in the corner. He became much excited when they approached the table once more. He was disturbed in his mind, it seemed; perspiration stood in large drops on his forehead; in his gleaming eyes it was easy to read impatience and agitation; his gaze wandered from face to face of those present, and from object to object in the room, apparently without aim. He had taken a part, and an animated one, in the noisy conversation of the company; but his animation was clearly the outcome of fever. His talk was almost incoherent; he would break off in the middle of a sentence which he had begun with great interest, and forget what he had been saying. The prince discovered to his dismay that Hippolyte had been allowed to drink two large glasses of champagne; the one now standing by him being the third. All this he found out afterwards; at the moment he did not notice anything, very particularly.
"Do you know I am specially glad that today is your birthday!" cried Hippolyte.
"You'll soon see. D'you know I had a feeling that there would be a lot of people here tonight? It's not the first time that my presentiments have been fulfilled. I wish I had known it was your birthday, I'd have brought you a present — perhaps I have got a present for you! Who knows? Ha, ha! How long is it now before daylight?"
"Not a couple of hours," said Ptitsin, looking at his watch. "What's the good of daylight now? One can read all night in the open air without it," said someone.
"The good of it! Well, I want just to see a ray of the sun," said Hippolyte. "Can one drink to the sun's health, do you think, prince?"
"Oh, I dare say one can; but you had better be calm and lie down, Hippolyte — that's much more important.
"You are always preaching about resting; you are a regular nurse to me, prince. As soon as the sun begins to 'resound' in the sky — what poet said that? 'The sun resounded in the sky.' It is beautiful, though there's no sense in it! — then we will go to bed. Lebedeff, tell me, is the sun the source of life? What does the source, or 'spring,' of life really mean in the Apocalypse? You have heard of the 'Star that is called Wormwood,' prince?"
"I have heard that Lebedeff explains it as the railroads that cover Europe like a net."
Everybody laughed, and Lebedeff got up abruptly.
"No! Allow me, that is not what we are discussing!" he cried, waving his hand to impose silence. "Allow me! With these gentlemen . . . all these gentlemen," he added, suddenly addressing the prince, "on certain points . . . that is . . . " He thumped the table repeatedly, and the laughter increased. Lebedeff was in his usual evening condition, and had just ended a long and scientific argument, which had left him excited and irritable. On such occasions he was apt to evince a supreme contempt for his opponents.
"It is not right! Half an hour ago, prince, it was agreed among us that no one should interrupt, no one should laugh, that each person was to express his thoughts freely; and then at the end, when everyone had spoken, objections might be made, even by the atheists. We chose the general as president. Now without some such rule and order, anyone might be shouted down, even in the loftiest and most profound thought . . . ."
"Go on! Go on! Nobody is going to interrupt you!" cried several voices.
"Speak, but keep to the point!"
"What is this 'star'?" asked another.
"I have no idea," replied General Ivolgin, who presided with much gravity.
"I love these arguments, prince," said Keller, also more than half intoxicated, moving restlessly in his chair. "Scientific and political." Then, turning suddenly towards Evgenie Pavlovitch, who was seated near him: "Do you know, I simply adore reading the accounts of the debates in the English parliament. Not that the discussions themselves interest me; I am not a politician, you know; but it delights me to see how they address each other 'the noble lord who agrees with me,' 'my honourable opponent who astonished Europe with his proposal,' 'the noble viscount sitting opposite' — all these expressions, all this parliamentarism of a free people, has an enormous attraction for me. It fascinates me, prince. I have always been an artist in the depths of my soul, I assure you, Evgenie Pavlovitch."
"Do you mean to say," cried Gania, from the other corner, "do you mean to say that railways are accursed inventions, that they are a source of ruin to humanity, a poison poured upon the earth to corrupt the springs of life?"
Gavrila Ardalionovitch was in high spirits that evening, and it seemed to the prince that his gaiety was mingled with triumph. Of course he was only joking with Lebedeff, meaning to egg him on, but he grew excited himself at the same time.
"Not the railways, oh dear, no!" replied Lebedeff, with a mixture of violent anger and extreme enjoyment. "Considered alone, the railways will not pollute the springs of life, but as a whole they are accursed. The whole tendency of our latest centuries, in its scientific and materialistic aspect, is most probably accursed."
"Is it certainly accursed? . . . or do you only mean it might be? That is an important point," said Evgenie Pavlovitch.
"It is accursed, certainly accursed!" replied the clerk, vehemently.
"Don't go so fast, Lebedeff; you are much milder in the morning," said Ptitsin, smiling.
"But, on the other hand, more frank in the evening! In the evening sincere and frank," repeated Lebedeff, earnestly. "More candid, more exact, more honest, more honourable, and . . . although I may show you my weak side, I challenge you all; you atheists, for instance! How are you going to save the world? How find a straight road of progress, you men of science, of industry, of cooperation, of trades unions, and all the rest? How are you going to save it, I say? By what? By credit? What is credit? To what will credit lead you?"
"You are too inquisitive," remarked Evgenie Pavlovitch.