"I DO know all!" she cried, with another burst of indignation. "You were living in the same house as that horrible woman with whom you ran away." She did not blush as she said this; on the contrary, she grew pale, and started from her seat, apparently oblivious of what she did, and immediately sat down again. Her lip continued to tremble for a long time.
There was silence for a moment. The prince was taken aback by the suddenness of this last reply, and did not know to what he should attribute it.
"I don't love you a bit!" she said suddenly, just as though the words had exploded from her mouth.
The prince did not answer, and there was silence again. "I love Gavrila Ardalionovitch," she said, quickly; but hardly audibly, and with her head bent lower than ever.
"That is NOT true," said the prince, in an equally low voice.
"What! I tell stories, do I? It is true! I gave him my promise a couple of days ago on this very seat."
The prince was startled, and reflected for a moment.
"It is not true," he repeated, decidedly; "you have just invented it!"
"You are wonderfully polite. You know he is greatly improved. He loves me better than his life. He let his hand burn before my very eyes in order to prove to me that he loved me better than his life!"
"He burned his hand!"
"Yes, believe it or not! It's all the same to me!"
The prince sat silent once more. Aglaya did not seem to be joking; she was too angry for that.
"What! he brought a candle with him to this place? That is, if the episode happened here; otherwise I can't."
"Yes, a candle! What's there improbable about that?"
"A whole one, and in a candlestick?"
"Yes — no-half a candle — an end, you know — no, it was a whole candle; it's all the same. Be quiet, can't you! He brought a box of matches too, if you like, and then lighted the candle and held his finger in it for half an hour and more! — There! Can't that be?"
"I saw him yesterday, and his fingers were all right!"
Aglaya suddenly burst out laughing, as simply as a child.
"Do you know why I have just told you these lies?" She appealed to the prince, of a sudden, with the most childlike candour, and with the laugh still trembling on her lips. "Because when one tells a lie, if one insists on something unusual and eccentric — something too 'out of the way'' for anything, you know — the more impossible the thing is, the more plausible does the lie sound. I've noticed this. But I managed it badly; I didn't know how to work it." She suddenly frowned again at this point as though at some sudden unpleasant recollection.
"If" — she began, looking seriously and even sadly at him — "if when I read you all that about the 'poor knight,' I wished to-to praise you for one thing — I also wished to show you that I knew all — and did not approve of your conduct."
"You are very unfair to me, and to that unfortunate woman of whom you spoke just now in such dreadful terms, Aglaya."
"Because I know all, all — and that is why I speak so. I know very well how you — half a year since — offered her your hand before everybody. Don't interrupt me. You see, I am merely stating facts without any comment upon them. After that she ran away with Rogojin. Then you lived with her at some village or town, and she ran away from you." (Aglaya blushed dreadfully.) "Then she returned to Rogojin again, who loves her like a madman. Then you — like a wise man as you are — came back here after her as soon as ever you heard that she had returned to Petersburg. Yesterday evening you sprang forward to protect her, and just now you dreamed about her. You see, I know all. You did come back here for her, for her — now didn't you?"
"Yes — for her!" said the prince softly and sadly, and bending his head down, quite unconscious of the fact that Aglaya was gazing at him with eyes which burned like live coals. "I came to find out something — I don't believe in her future happiness as Rogojin's wife, although — in a word, I did not know how to help her or what to do for her — but I came, on the chance."
He glanced at Aglaya, who was listening with a look of hatred on her face.
"If you came without knowing why, I suppose you love her very much indeed!" she said at last.
"No," said the prince, "no, I do not love her. Oh! if you only knew with what horror I recall the time I spent with her!"
A shudder seemed to sweep over his whole body at the recollection.
"Tell me about it," said Aglaya.
"There is nothing which you might not hear. Why I should wish to tell you, and only you, this experience of mine, I really cannot say; perhaps it really is because I love you very much. This unhappy woman is persuaded that she is the most hopeless, fallen creature in the world. Oh, do not condemn her! Do not cast stones at her! She has suffered too much already in the consciousness of her own undeserved shame.
"And she is not guilty — oh God! — Every moment she bemoans and bewails herself, and cries out that she does not admit any guilt, that she is the victim of circumstances — the victim of a wicked libertine.
"But whatever she may say, remember that she does not believe it herself, — remember that she will believe nothing but that she is a guilty creature.
"When I tried to rid her soul of this gloomy fallacy, she suffered so terribly that my heart will never be quite at peace so long as I can remember that dreadful time! — Do you know why she left me? Simply to prove to me what is not true — that she is base. But the worst of it is, she did not realize herself that that was all she wanted to prove by her departure! She went away in response to some inner prompting to do something disgraceful, in order that she might say to herself — 'There — you've done a new act of shame — you degraded creature!'
"Oh, Aglaya — perhaps you cannot understand all this. Try to realize that in the perpetual admission of guilt she probably finds some dreadful unnatural satisfaction — as though she were revenging herself upon someone.
"Now and then I was able to persuade her almost to see light around her again; but she would soon fall, once more, into her old tormenting delusions, and would go so far as to reproach me for placing myself on a pedestal above her (I never had an idea of such a thing!), and informed me, in reply to my proposal of marriage, that she 'did not want condescending sympathy or help from anybody.' You saw her last night. You don't suppose she can be happy among such people as those — you cannot suppose that such society is fit for her? You have no idea how well-educated she is, and what an intellect she has! She astonished me sometimes."
"And you preached her sermons there, did you?"
"Oh no," continued the prince thoughtfully, not noticing Aglaya's mocking tone, "I was almost always silent there. I often wished to speak, but I really did not know what to say. In some cases it is best to say nothing, I think. I loved her, yes, I loved her very much indeed; but afterwards — afterwards she guessed all."
"What did she guess?"
"That I only PITIED her — and — and loved her no longer!"
"How do you know that? How do you know that she is not really in love with that — that rich cad — the man she eloped with?"
"Oh no! I know she only laughs at him; she has made a fool of him all along."
"Has she never laughed at you?"
"No — in anger, perhaps. Oh yes! she reproached me dreadfully in anger; and suffered herself, too! But afterwards — oh! don't remind me — don't remind me of that!"
He hid his face in his hands.
"Are you aware that she writes to me almost every day?"
"So that is true, is it?" cried the prince, greatly agitated. "I had heard a report of it, but would not believe it."
"Whom did you hear it from?" asked Aglaya, alarmed. "Rogojin said something about it yesterday, but nothing definite."
"Yesterday! Morning or evening? Before the music or after?"
"After — it was about twelve o'clock."
"Ah! Well, if it was Rogojin — but do you know what she writes to me about?"
"I should not be surprised by anything. She is mad!"
"There are the letters." (Aglaya took three letters out of her pocket and threw them down before the prince.) "For a whole week she has been entreating and worrying and persuading me to marry you. She — well, she is clever, though she may be mad — much cleverer than I am, as you say. Well, she writes that she is in love with me herself, and tries to see me every day, if only from a distance. She writes that you love me, and that she has long known it and seen it, and that you and she talked about me — there. She wishes to see you happy, and she says that she is certain only I can ensure you the happiness you deserve. She writes such strange, wild letters — I haven't shown them to anyone. Now, do you know what all this means? Can you guess anything?"