"Perhaps then I am anxious to take advantage of my last chance of doing something for myself. A protest is sometimes no small thing."
The explanation was finished; Hippolyte paused at last.
There is, in extreme cases, a final stage of cynical candour when a nervous man, excited, and beside himself with emotion, will be afraid of nothing and ready for any sort of scandal, nay, glad of it. The extraordinary, almost unnatural, tension of the nerves which upheld Hippolyte up to this point, had now arrived at this final stage. This poor feeble boy of eighteen — exhausted by disease — looked for all the world as weak and frail as a leaflet torn from its parent tree and trembling in the breeze; but no sooner had his eye swept over his audience, for the first time during the whole of the last hour, than the most contemptuous, the most haughty expression of repugnance lighted up his face. He defied them all, as it were. But his hearers were indignant, too; they rose to their feet with annoyance. Fatigue, the wine consumed, the strain of listening so long, all added to the disagreeable impression which the reading had made upon them.
Suddenly Hippolyte jumped up as though he had been shot.
"The sun is rising," he cried, seeing the gilded tops of the trees, and pointing to them as to a miracle. "See, it is rising now!"
"Well, what then? Did you suppose it wasn't going to rise?" asked Ferdishenko.
"It's going to be atrociously hot again all day," said Gania, with an air of annoyance, taking his hat. "A month of this . . . Are you coming home, Ptitsin?" Hippolyte listened to this in amazement, almost amounting to stupefaction. Suddenly he became deadly pale and shuddered.
"You manage your composure too awkwardly. I see you wish to insult me," he cried to Gania. "You — you are a cur!" He looked at Gania with an expression of malice.
"What on earth is the matter with the boy? What phenomenal feeble-mindedness!" exclaimed Ferdishenko.
"Oh, he's simply a fool," said Gania.
Hippolyte braced himself up a little.
"I understand, gentlemen," he began, trembling as before, and stumbling over every word, "that I have deserved your resentment, and — and am sorry that I should have troubled you with this raving nonsense" (pointing to his article), "or rather, I am sorry that I have not troubled you enough." He smiled feebly. "Have I troubled you, Evgenie Pavlovitch?" He suddenly turned on Evgenie with this question. "Tell me now, have I troubled you or not?"
"Well, it was a little drawn out, perhaps; but — "
"Come, speak out! Don't lie, for once in your life — speak out!" continued Hippolyte, quivering with agitation.
"Oh, my good sir, I assure you it's entirely the same to me. Please leave me in peace," said Evgenie, angrily, turning his back on him.
"Good-night, prince," said Ptitsin, approaching his host.
"What are you thinking of? Don't go, he'll blow his brains out in a minute!" cried Vera Lebedeff, rushing up to Hippolyte and catching hold of his hands in a torment of alarm. "What are you thinking of? He said he would blow his brains out at sunrise."
"Oh, he won't shoot himself!" cried several voices, sarcastically.
"Gentlemen, you'd better look out," cried Colia, also seizing Hippolyte by the hand. "Just look at him! Prince, what are you thinking of?" Vera and Colia, and Keller, and Burdovsky were all crowding round Hippolyte now and holding him down.
"He has the right — the right — "-murmured Burdovsky. "Excuse me, prince, but what are your arrangements?" asked Lebedeff, tipsy and exasperated, going up to Muishkin.
"What do you mean by 'arrangements'?"
"No, no, excuse me! I'm master of this house, though I do not wish to lack respect towards you. You are master of the house too, in a way; but I can't allow this sort of thing — "
"He won't shoot himself; the boy is only playing the fool," said General Ivolgin, suddenly and unexpectedly, with indignation.
"I know he won't, I know he won't, general; but I — I'm master here!"
"Listen, Mr. Terentieff," said Ptitsin, who had bidden the prince good-night, and was now holding out his hand to Hippolyte; "I think you remark in that manuscript of yours, that you bequeath your skeleton to the Academy. Are you referring to your own skeleton — I mean, your very bones?"
"Yes, my bones, I — "
"Quite so, I see; because, you know, little mistakes have occurred now and then. There was a case — "
"Why do you tease him?" cried the prince, suddenly.
"You've moved him to tears," added Ferdishenko. But Hippolyte was by no means weeping. He was about to move from his place, when his four guards rushed at him and seized him once more. There was a laugh at this.
"He led up to this on purpose. He took the trouble of writing all that so that people should come and grab him by the arm," observed Rogojin. "Good-night, prince. What a time we've sat here, my very bones ache!"
"If you really intended to shoot yourself, Terentieff," said Evgenie Pavlovitch, laughing, "if I were you, after all these compliments, I should just not shoot myself in order to vex them all."
"They are very anxious to see me blow my brains out," said Hippolyte, bitterly.
"Yes, they'll be awfully annoyed if they don't see it."
"Then you think they won't see it?"
"I am not trying to egg you on. On the contrary, I think it very likely that you may shoot yourself; but the principal thing is to keep cool," said Evgenie with a drawl, and with great condescension.
"I only now perceive what a terrible mistake I made in reading this article to them," said Hippolyte, suddenly, addressing Evgenie, and looking at him with an expression of trust and confidence, as though he were applying to a friend for counsel.
"Yes, it's a droll situation; I really don't know what advice to give you," replied Evgenie, laughing. Hippolyte gazed steadfastly at him, but said nothing. To look at him one might have supposed that he was unconscious at intervals.
"Excuse me," said Lebedeff, "but did you observe the young gentleman's style? 'I'll go and blow my brains out in the park,' says he,' so as not to disturb anyone.' He thinks he won't disturb anybody if he goes three yards away, into the park, and blows his brains out there."
"Gentlemen — " began the prince.
"No, no, excuse me, most revered prince," Lebedeff interrupted, excitedly. "Since you must have observed yourself that this is no joke, and since at least half your guests must also have concluded that after all that has been said this youth MUST blow his brains out for honour's sake — I — as master of this house, and before these witnesses, now call upon you to take steps."
"Yes, but what am I to do, Lebedeff? What steps am I to take? I am ready."
"I'll tell you. In the first place he must immediately deliver up the pistol which he boasted of, with all its appurtenances. If he does this I shall consent to his being allowed to spend the night in this house — considering his feeble state of health, and of course conditionally upon his being under proper supervision. But tomorrow he must go elsewhere. Excuse me, prince! Should he refuse to deliver up his weapon, then I shall instantly seize one of his arms and General Ivolgin the other, and we shall hold him until the police arrive and take the matter into their own hands. Mr. Ferdishenko will kindly fetch them."
At this there was a dreadful noise; Lebedeff danced about in his excitement; Ferdishenko prepared to go for the police; Gania frantically insisted that it was all nonsense, "for nobody was going to shoot themselves." Evgenie Pavlovitch said nothing.
"Prince," whispered Hippolyte, suddenly, his eyes all ablaze, "you don't suppose that I did not foresee all this hatred?" He looked at the prince as though he expected him to reply, for a moment. "Enough!" he added at length, and addressing the whole company, he cried: "It's all my fault, gentlemen! Lebedeff, here's the key," (he took out a small bunch of keys); "this one, the last but one — Colia will show you — Colia, where's Colia?" he cried, looking straight at Colia and not seeing him. "Yes, he'll show you; he packed the bag with me this morning. Take him up, Colia; my bag is upstairs in the prince's study, under the table. Here's the key, and in the little case you'll find my pistol and the powder, and all. Colia packed it himself, Mr. Lebedeff; he'll show you; but it's on condition that tomorrow morning, when I leave for Petersburg, you will give me back my pistol, do you hear? I do this for the prince's sake, not yours."