"I don't know at all; but she said I was to tell you particularly."
"Did she say that?"
"Not those very words. She only just had time to whisper as she went by; but by the way she looked at me I knew it was important. She looked at me in a way that made my heart stop beating."
The prince asked a few more questions, and though he learned nothing else, he became more and more agitated.
Left alone, he lay down on the sofa, and began to think.
"Perhaps," he thought, "someone is to be with them until nine tonight and she is afraid that I may come and make a fool of myself again, in public." So he spent his time longing for the evening and looking at his watch. But the clearing-up of the mystery came long before the evening, and came in the form of a new and agonizing riddle.
Half an hour after the Epanchins had gone, Hippolyte arrived, so tired that, almost unconscious, he sank into a chair, and broke into such a fit of coughing that he could not stop. He coughed till the blood came. His eyes glittered, and two red spots on his cheeks grew brighter and brighter. The prince murmured something to him, but Hippolyte only signed that he must be left alone for a while, and sat silent. At last he came to himself.
"I am off," he said, hoarsely, and with difficulty.
"Shall I see you home?" asked the prince, rising from his seat, but suddenly stopping short as he remembered Aglaya's prohibition against leaving the house. Hippolyte laughed.
"I don't mean that I am going to leave your house," he continued, still gasping and coughing. "On the contrary, I thought it absolutely necessary to come and see you; otherwise I should not have troubled you. I am off there, you know, and this time I believe, seriously, that I am off! It's all over. I did not come here for sympathy, believe me. I lay down this morning at ten o'clock with the intention of not rising again before that time; but I thought it over and rose just once more in order to come here; from which you may deduce that I had some reason for wishing to come."
"It grieves me to see you so, Hippolyte. Why didn't you send me a message? I would have come up and saved you this trouble."
"Well, well! Enough! You've pitied me, and that's all that good manners exact. I forgot, how are you?"
"I'm all right; yesterday I was a little — "
"I know, I heard; the china vase caught it! I'm sorry I wasn't there. I've come about something important. In the first place I had, the pleasure of seeing Gavrila Ardalionovitch and Aglaya Ivanovna enjoying a rendezvous on the green bench in the park. I was astonished to see what a fool a man can look. I remarked upon the fact to Aglaya Ivanovna when he had gone. I don't think anything ever surprises you, prince!" added Hippolyte, gazing incredulously at the prince's calm demeanour. "To be astonished by nothing is a sign, they say, of a great intellect. In my opinion it would serve equally well as a sign of great foolishness. I am not hinting about you; pardon me! I am very unfortunate today in my expressions.
"I knew yesterday that Gavrila Ardalionovitch — " began the prince, and paused in evident confusion, though Hippolyte had shown annoyance at his betraying no surprise.
"You knew it? Come, that's news! But no — perhaps better not tell me. And were you a witness of the meeting?"
"If you were there yourself you must have known that I was NOT there!"
"Oh! but you may have been sitting behind the bushes somewhere. However, I am very glad, on your account, of course. I was beginning to be afraid that Mr. Gania — might have the preference!"
"May I ask you, Hippolyte, not to talk of this subject? And not to use such expressions?"
"Especially as you know all, eh?"
"You are wrong. I know scarcely anything, and Aglaya Ivanovna is aware that I know nothing. I knew nothing whatever about this meeting. You say there was a meeting. Very well; let's leave it so — "
"Why, what do you mean? You said you knew, and now suddenly you know nothing! You say 'very well; let's leave it so.' But I say, don't be so confiding, especially as you know nothing. You are confiding simply BECAUSE you know nothing. But do you know what these good people have in their minds' eye — Gania and his sister? Perhaps you are suspicious? Well, well, I'll drop the subject!" he added, hastily, observing the prince's impatient gesture. "But I've come to you on my own business; I wish to make you a clear explanation. What a nuisance it is that one cannot die without explanations! I have made such a quantity of them already. Do you wish to hear what I have to say?"
"Speak away, I am listening."
"Very well, but I'll change my mind, and begin about Gania. Just fancy to begin with, if you can, that I, too, was given an appointment at the green bench today! However, I won't deceive you; I asked for the appointment. I said I had a secret to disclose. I don't know whether I came there too early, I think I must have; but scarcely had I sat down beside Aglaya Ivanovna than I saw Gavrila Ardalionovitch and his sister Varia coming along, arm in arm, just as though they were enjoying a morning walk together. Both of them seemed very much astonished, not to say disturbed, at seeing me; they evidently had not expected the pleasure. Aglaya Ivanovna blushed up, and was actually a little confused. I don't know whether it was merely because I was there, or whether Gania's beauty was too much for her! But anyway, she turned crimson, and then finished up the business in a very funny manner. She jumped up from her seat, bowed back to Gania, smiled to Varia, and suddenly observed: 'I only came here to express my gratitude for all your kind wishes on my behalf, and to say that if I find I need your services, believe me — ' Here she bowed them away, as it were, and they both marched off again, looking very foolish. Gania evidently could not make head nor tail of the matter, and turned as red as a lobster; but Varia understood at once that they must get away as quickly as they could, so she dragged Gania away; she is a great deal cleverer than he is. As for myself, I went there to arrange a meeting to be held between Aglaya Ivanovna and Nastasia Philipovna."
"Nastasia Philipovna!" cried the prince.
"Aha! I think you are growing less cool, my friend, and are beginning to be a trifle surprised, aren't you? I'm glad that you are not above ordinary human feelings, for once. I'll console you a little now, after your consternation. See what I get for serving a young and high-souled maiden! This morning I received a slap in the face from the lady!"
"A — a moral one?" asked the prince, involuntarily.
"Yes — not a physical one! I don't suppose anyone — even a woman — would raise a hand against me now. Even Gania would hesitate! I did think at one time yesterday, that he would fly at me, though. I bet anything that I know what you are thinking of now! You are thinking: 'Of course one can't strike the little wretch, but one could suffocate him with a pillow, or a wet towel, when he is asleep! One OUGHT to get rid of him somehow.' I can see in your face that you are thinking that at this very second."
"I never thought of such a thing for a moment," said the prince, with disgust.
"I don't know — I dreamed last night that I was being suffocated with a wet cloth by — somebody. I'll tell you who it was — Rogojin! What do you think, can a man be suffocated with a wet cloth?"
"I don't know."