"What shall I write?" asked the prince.
"I'll dictate to you," said Aglaya, coming up to the table. "Now then, are you ready? Write, 'I never condescend to bargain!' Now put your name and the date. Let me see it."
The prince handed her the album.
"Capital! How beautifully you have written it! Thanks so much. Au revoir, prince. Wait a minute,"; she added, "I want to give you something for a keepsake. Come with me this way, will you?"
The prince followed her. Arrived at the dining-room, she stopped.
"Read this," she said, handing him Gania's note.
The prince took it from her hand, but gazed at her in bewilderment.
"Oh! I KNOW you haven't read it, and that you could never be that man's accomplice. Read it, I wish you to read it."
The letter had evidently been written in a hurry:
"My fate is to be decided today" (it ran), "you know how. This day I must give my word irrevocably. I have no right to ask your help, and I dare not allow myself to indulge in any hopes; but once you said just one word, and that word lighted up the night of my life, and became the beacon of my days. Say one more such word, and save me from utter ruin. Only tell me, 'break off the whole thing!' and I will do so this very day. Oh! what can it cost you to say just this one word? In doing so you will but be giving me a sign of your sympathy for me, and of your pity; only this, only this; nothing more, NOTHING. I dare not indulge in any hope, because I am unworthy of it. But if you say but this word, I will take up my cross again with joy, and return once more to my battle with poverty. I shall meet the storm and be glad of it; I shall rise up with renewed strength.
"Send me back then this one word of sympathy, only sympathy, I swear to you; and oh! do not be angry with the audacity of despair, with the drowning man who has dared to make this last effort to save himself from perishing beneath the waters.
"This man assures me," said Aglaya, scornfully, when the prince had finished reading the letter, "that the words 'break off everything' do not commit me to anything whatever; and himself gives me a written guarantee to that effect, in this letter. Observe how ingenuously he underlines certain words, and how crudely he glosses over his hidden thoughts. He must know that if he 'broke off everything,' FIRST, by himself, and without telling me a word about it or having the slightest hope on my account, that in that case I should perhaps be able to change my opinion of him, and even accept his — friendship. He must know that, but his soul is such a wretched thing. He knows it and cannot make up his mind; he knows it and yet asks for guarantees. He cannot bring himself to TRUST, he wants me to give him hopes of myself before he lets go of his hundred thousand roubles. As to the 'former word' which he declares 'lighted up the night of his life,' he is simply an impudent liar; I merely pitied him once. But he is audacious and shameless. He immediately began to hope, at that very moment. I saw it. He has tried to catch me ever since; he is still fishing for me. Well, enough of this. Take the letter and give it back to him, as soon as you have left our house; not before, of course."
"And what shall I tell him by way of answer?"
"Nothing — of course! That's the best answer. Is it the case that you are going to live in his house?"
"Yes, your father kindly recommended me to him."
"Then look out for him, I warn you! He won't forgive you easily, for taking back the letter."
Aglaya pressed the prince's hand and left the room. Her face was serious and frowning; she did not even smile as she nodded good-bye to him at the door.
"I'll just get my parcel and we'll go," said the prince to Gania, as he re-entered the drawing-room. Gania stamped his foot with impatience. His face looked dark and gloomy with rage.
At last they left the house behind them, the prince carrying his bundle.
"The answer — quick — the answer!" said Gania, the instant they were outside. "What did she say? Did you give the letter?" The prince silently held out the note. Gania was struck motionless with amazement.
"How, what? my letter?" he cried. "He never delivered it! I might have guessed it, oh! curse him! Of course she did not understand what I meant, naturally! Why-why-WHY didn't you give her the note, you — "
"Excuse me; I was able to deliver it almost immediately after receiving your commission, and I gave it, too, just as you asked me to. It has come into my hands now because Aglaya Ivanovna has just returned it to me."
"As soon as I finished writing in her album for her, and when she asked me to come out of the room with her (you heard?), we went into the dining-room, and she gave me your letter to read, and then told me to return it."
"To READ?" cried Gania, almost at the top of his voice; "to READ, and you read it?"
And again he stood like a log in the middle of the pavement; so amazed that his mouth remained open after the last word had left it.
"Yes, I have just read it."
"And she gave it you to read herself — HERSELF?"
"Yes, herself; and you may believe me when I tell you that I would not have read it for anything without her permission."
Gania was silent for a minute or two, as though thinking out some problem. Suddenly he cried:
"It's impossible, she cannot have given it to you to read! You are lying. You read it yourself!"
"I am telling you the truth," said the prince in his former composed tone of voice; "and believe me, I am extremely sorry that the circumstance should have made such an unpleasant impression upon you!"
"But, you wretched man, at least she must have said something? There must be SOME answer from her!"
"Yes, of course, she did say something!"
"Out with it then, damn it! Out with it at once!" and Gania stamped his foot twice on the pavement.
"As soon as I had finished reading it, she told me that you were fishing for her; that you wished to compromise her so far as to receive some hopes from her, trusting to which hopes you might break with the prospect of receiving a hundred thousand roubles. She said that if you had done this without bargaining with her, if you had broken with the money prospects without trying to force a guarantee out of her first, she might have been your friend. That's all, I think. Oh no, when I asked her what I was to say, as I took the letter, she replied that 'no answer is the best answer.' I think that was it. Forgive me if I do not use her exact expressions. I tell you the sense as I understood it myself."
Ungovernable rage and madness took entire possession of Gania, and his fury burst out without the least attempt at restraint.
"Oh! that's it, is it!" he yelled. "She throws my letters out of the window, does she! Oh! and she does not condescend to bargain, while I DO, eh? We shall see, we shall see! I shall pay her out for this."
He twisted himself about with rage, and grew paler and paler; he shook his fist. So the pair walked along a few steps. Gania did not stand on ceremony with the prince; he behaved just as though he were alone in his room. He clearly counted the latter as a nonentity. But suddenly he seemed to have an idea, and recollected himself.
"But how was it?" he asked, "how was it that you (idiot that you are)," he added to himself, "were so very confidential a couple of hours after your first meeting with these people? How was that, eh?"
Up to this moment jealousy had not been one of his torments; now it suddenly gnawed at his heart.
"That is a thing I cannot undertake to explain," replied the prince. Gania looked at him with angry contempt.