When the prince ceased speaking all were gazing merrily at him — even Aglaya; but Lizabetha Prokofievna looked the jolliest of all.
"Well!" she cried, "we HAVE 'put him through his paces,' with a vengeance! My dears, you imagined, I believe, that you were about to patronize this young gentleman, like some poor protege picked up somewhere, and taken under your magnificent protection. What fools we were, and what a specially big fool is your father! Well done, prince! I assure you the general actually asked me to put you through your paces, and examine you. As to what you said about my face, you are absolutely correct in your judgment. I am a child, and know it. I knew it long before you said so; you have expressed my own thoughts. I think your nature and mine must be extremely alike, and I am very glad of it. We are like two drops of water, only you are a man and I a woman, and I've not been to Switzerland, and that is all the difference between us."
"Don't be in a hurry, mother; the prince says that he has some motive behind his simplicity," cried Aglaya.
"Yes, yes, so he does," laughed the others.
"Oh, don't you begin bantering him," said mamma. "He is probably a good deal cleverer than all three of you girls put together. We shall see. Only you haven't told us anything about Aglaya yet, prince; and Aglaya and I are both waiting to hear."
"I cannot say anything at present. I'll tell you afterwards."
"Why? Her face is clear enough, isn't it?"
"Oh yes, of course. You are very beautiful, Aglaya Ivanovna, so beautiful that one is afraid to look at you."
"Is that all? What about her character?" persisted Mrs. Epanchin.
"It is difficult to judge when such beauty is concerned. I have not prepared my judgment. Beauty is a riddle."
"That means that you have set Aglaya a riddle!" said Adelaida. "Guess it, Aglaya! But she's pretty, prince, isn't she?"
"Most wonderfully so," said the latter, warmly, gazing at Aglaya with admiration. "Almost as lovely as Nastasia Philipovna, but quite a different type."
All present exchanged looks of surprise.
"As lovely as WHO?" said Mrs. Epanchin. "As NASTASIA PHILIPOVNA? Where have you seen Nastasia Philipovna? What Nastasia Philipovna?"
"Gavrila Ardalionovitch showed the general her portrait just now."
"How so? Did he bring the portrait for my husband?"
"Only to show it. Nastasia Philipovna gave it to Gavrila Ardalionovitch today, and the latter brought it here to show to the general."
"I must see it!" cried Mrs. Epanchin. "Where is the portrait? If she gave it to him, he must have it; and he is still in the study. He never leaves before four o'clock on Wednesdays. Send for Gavrila Ardalionovitch at once. No, I don't long to see HIM so much. Look here, dear prince, BE so kind, will you? Just step to the study and fetch this portrait! Say we want to look at it. Please do this for me, will you?"
"He is a nice fellow, but a little too simple," said Adelaida, as the prince left the room.
"He is, indeed," said Alexandra; "almost laughably so at times."
Neither one nor the other seemed to give expression to her full thoughts.
"He got out of it very neatly about our faces, though," said Aglaya. "He flattered us all round, even mamma."
"Nonsense" cried the latter. "He did not flatter me. It was I who found his appreciation flattering. I think you are a great deal more foolish than he is. He is simple, of course, but also very knowing. Just like myself."
"How stupid of me to speak of the portrait," thought the prince as he entered the study, with a feeling of guilt at his heart, "and yet, perhaps I was right after all." He had an idea, unformed as yet, but a strange idea.
Gavrila Ardalionovitch was still sitting in the study, buried in a mass of papers. He looked as though he did not take his salary from the public company, whose servant he was, for a sinecure.
He grew very wroth and confused when the prince asked for the portrait, and explained how it came about that he had spoken of it.
"Oh, curse it all," he said; "what on earth must you go blabbing for? You know nothing about the thing, and yet — idiot!" he added, muttering the last word to himself in irrepressible rage.
"I am very sorry; I was not thinking at the time. I merely said that Aglaya was almost as beautiful as Nastasia Philipovna."
Gania asked for further details; and the prince once more repeated the conversation. Gania looked at him with ironical contempt the while.
"Nastasia Philipovna," he began, and there paused; he was clearly much agitated and annoyed. The prince reminded him of the portrait.
"Listen, prince," said Gania, as though an idea had just struck him, "I wish to ask you a great favour, and yet I really don't know — "
He paused again, he was trying to make up his mind to something, and was turning the matter over. The prince waited quietly. Once more Gania fixed him with intent and questioning eyes.
"Prince," he began again, "they are rather angry with me, in there, owing to a circumstance which I need not explain, so that I do not care to go in at present without an invitation. I particularly wish to speak to Aglaya, but I have written a few words in case I shall not have the chance of seeing her" (here the prince observed a small note in his hand), "and I do not know how to get my communication to her. Don't you think you could undertake to give it to her at once, but only to her, mind, and so that no one else should see you give it? It isn't much of a secret, but still — Well, will you do it?"
"I don't quite like it," replied the prince.
"Oh, but it is absolutely necessary for me," Gania entreated. "Believe me, if it were not so, I would not ask you; how else am I to get it to her? It is most important, dreadfully important!"
Gania was evidently much alarmed at the idea that the prince would not consent to take his note, and he looked at him now with an expression of absolute entreaty.
"Well, I will take it then."
"But mind, nobody is to see!" cried the delighted Gania "And of course I may rely on your word of honour, eh?"
"I won't show it to anyone," said the prince.
"The letter is not sealed — " continued Gania, and paused in confusion.
"Oh, I won't read it," said the prince, quite simply.
He took up the portrait, and went out of the room.
Gania, left alone, clutched his head with his hands.
"One word from her," he said, "one word from her, and I may yet be free."
He could not settle himself to his papers again, for agitation and excitement, but began walking up and down the room from corner to corner.
The prince walked along, musing. He did not like his commission, and disliked the idea of Gania sending a note to Aglaya at all; but when he was two rooms distant from the drawing-room, where they all were, he stopped a though recalling something; went to the window, nearer the light, and began to examine the portrait in his hand.
He longed to solve the mystery of something in the face Nastasia Philipovna, something which had struck him as he looked at the portrait for the first time; the impression had not left him. It was partly the fact of her marvellous beauty that struck him, and partly something else. There was a suggestion of immense pride and disdain in the face almost of hatred, and at the same time something confiding and very full of simplicity. The contrast aroused a deep sympathy in his heart as he looked at the lovely face. The blinding loveliness of it was almost intolerable, this pale thin face with its flaming eyes; it was a strange beauty.
The prince gazed at it for a minute or two, then glanced around him, and hurriedly raised the portrait to his lips. When, a minute after, he reached the drawing-room door, his face was quite composed. But just as he reached the door he met Aglaya coming out alone.
"Gavrila Ardalionovitch begged me to give you this," he said, handing her the note.
Aglaya stopped, took the letter, and gazed strangely into the prince's eyes. There was no confusion in her face; a little surprise, perhaps, but that was all. By her look she seemed merely to challenge the prince to an explanation as to how he and Gania happened to be connected in this matter. But her expression was perfectly cool and quiet, and even condescending.
So they stood for a moment or two, confronting one another. At length a faint smile passed over her face, and she passed by him without a word.