With these last excited words, Lebedeff's nephew was silent.
"We demand, we demand, we demand, we do not beseech," spluttered Burdovsky, red as a lobster.
The speech of Lebedeff's nephew caused a certain stir among the company; murmurs arose, though with the exception of Lebedeff, who was still very much excited, everyone was careful not to interfere in the matter. Strangely enough, Lebedeff, although on the prince's side, seemed quite proud of his nephew's eloquence. Gratified vanity was visible in the glances he cast upon the assembled company.
"In my opinion, Mr. Doktorenko," said the prince, in rather a low voice, "you are quite right in at least half of what you say. I would go further and say that you are altogether right, and that I quite agree with you, if there were not something lacking in your speech. I cannot undertake to say precisely what it is, but you have certainly omitted something, and you cannot be quite just while there is something lacking. But let us put that aside and return to the point. Tell me what induced you to publish this article. Every word of it is a calumny, and I think, gentlemen, that you have been guilty of a mean action."
"Allow me — "
"Sir — "
"What? What? What?" cried all the visitors at once, in violent agitation.
"As to the article," said Hippolyte in his croaking voice, "I have told you already that we none of us approve of it! There is the writer," he added, pointing to the boxer, who sat beside him. "I quite admit that he has written it in his old regimental manner, with an equal disregard for style and decency. I know he is a cross between a fool and an adventurer; I make no bones about telling him so to his face every day. But after all he is half justified; publicity is the lawful right of every man; consequently, Burdovsky is not excepted. Let him answer for his own blunders. As to the objection which I made just now in the name of all, to the presence of your friends, I think I ought to explain, gentlemen, that I only did so to assert our rights, though we really wished to have witnesses; we had agreed unanimously upon the point before we came in. We do not care who your witnesses may be, or whether they are your friends or not. As they cannot fail to recognize Burdovsky's right (seeing that it is mathematically demonstrable), it is just as well that the witnesses should be your friends. The truth will only be more plainly evident."
"It is quite true; we had agreed upon that point," said Lebedeff's nephew, in confirmation.
"If that is the case, why did you begin by making such a fuss about it?" asked the astonished prince.
The boxer was dying to get in a few words; owing, no doubt, to the presence of the ladies, he was becoming quite jovial.
"As to the article, prince," he said, "I admit that I wrote it, in spite of the severe criticism of my poor friend, in whom I always overlook many things because of his unfortunate state of health. But I wrote and published it in the form of a letter, in the paper of a friend. I showed it to no one but Burdovsky, and I did not read it all through, even to him. He immediately gave me permission to publish it, but you will admit that I might have done so without his consent. Publicity is a noble, beneficent, and universal right. I hope, prince, that you are too progressive to deny this?"
"I deny nothing, but you must confess that your article — "
"Is a bit thick, you mean? Well, in a way that is in the public interest; you will admit that yourself, and after all one cannot overlook a blatant fact. So much the worse for the guilty parties, but the public welfare must come before everything. As to certain inaccuracies and figures of speech, so to speak, you will also admit that the motive, aim, and intention, are the chief thing. It is a question, above all, of making a wholesome example; the individual case can be examined afterwards; and as to the style — well, the thing was meant to be humorous, so to speak, and, after all, everybody writes like that; you must admit it yourself! Ha, ha!"
"But, gentlemen, I assure you that you are quite astray," exclaimed the prince. "You have published this article upon the supposition that I would never consent to satisfy Mr. Burdovsky. Acting on that conviction, you have tried to intimidate me by this publication and to be revenged for my supposed refusal. But what did you know of my intentions? It may be that I have resolved to satisfy Mr. Burdovsky's claim. I now declare openly, in the presence of these witnesses, that I will do so."
"The noble and intelligent word of an intelligent and most noble man, at last!" exclaimed the boxer.
"Good God!" exclaimed Lizabetha Prokofievna involuntarily.
"This is intolerable," growled the general.
"Allow me, gentlemen, allow me," urged the prince.
"I will explain matters to you. Five weeks ago I received a visit from Tchebaroff, your agent, Mr. Burdovsky. You have given a very flattering description of him in your article, Mr. Keller," he continued, turning to the boxer with a smile, "but he did not please me at all. I saw at once that Tchebaroff was the moving spirit in the matter, and, to speak frankly, I thought he might have induced you, Mr. Burdovsky, to make this claim, by taking advantage of your simplicity."
"You have no right . . . . I am not simple," stammered Burdovsky, much agitated.
"You have no sort of right to suppose such things," said Lebedeff's nephew in a tone of authority.
"It is most offensive!" shrieked Hippolyte; "it is an insulting suggestion, false, and most ill-timed."
"I beg your pardon, gentlemen; please excuse me," said the prince. "I thought absolute frankness on both sides would be best, but have it your own way. I told Tchebaroff that, as I was not in Petersburg, I would commission a friend to look into the matter without delay, and that I would let you know, Mr. Burdovsky. Gentlemen, I have no hesitation in telling you that it was the fact of Tchebaroff's intervention that made me suspect a fraud. Oh! do not take offence at my words, gentlemen, for Heaven's sake do not be so touchy!" cried the prince, seeing that Burdovsky was getting excited again, and that the rest were preparing to protest. "If I say I suspected a fraud, there is nothing personal in that. I had never seen any of you then; I did not even know your names; I only judged by Tchebaroff; I am speaking quite generally — if you only knew how I have been 'done' since I came into my fortune!"
"You are shockingly naive, prince," said Lebedeff's nephew in mocking tones.
"Besides, though you are a prince and a millionaire, and even though you may really be simple and good-hearted, you can hardly be outside the general law," Hippolyte declared loudly.
"Perhaps not; it is very possible," the prince agreed hastily, "though I do not know what general law you allude to. I will go on — only please do not take offence without good cause. I assure you I do not mean to offend you in the least. Really, it is impossible to speak three words sincerely without your flying into a rage! At first I was amazed when Tchebaroff told me that Pavlicheff had a son, and that he was in such a miserable position. Pavlicheff was my benefactor, and my father's friend. Oh, Mr. Keller, why does your article impute things to my father without the slightest foundation? He never squandered the funds of his company nor ill-treated his subordinates, I am absolutely certain of it; I cannot imagine how you could bring yourself to write such a calumny! But your assertions concerning Pavlicheff are absolutely intolerable! You do not scruple to make a libertine of that noble man; you call him a sensualist as coolly as if you were speaking the truth, and yet it would not be possible to find a chaster man. He was even a scholar of note, and in correspondence with several celebrated scientists, and spent large sums in the interests of science. As to his kind heart and his good actions, you were right indeed when you said that I was almost an idiot at that time, and could hardly understand anything — (I could speak and understand Russian, though), — but now I can appreciate what I remember — "
"Excuse me," interrupted Hippolyte, "is not this rather sentimental? You said you wished to come to the point; please remember that it is after nine o'clock."
"Very well, gentlemen — very well," replied the prince. "At first I received the news with mistrust, then I said to myself that I might be mistaken, and that Pavlicheff might possibly have had a son. But I was absolutely amazed at the readiness with which the son had revealed the secret of his birth at the expense of his mother's honour. For Tchebaroff had already menaced me with publicity in our interview . . . ."
"What nonsense!" Lebedeff's nephew interrupted violently.
"You have no right — you have no right!" cried Burdovsky.