"We have evidence. In the first place, his mysterious disappearance at seven o'clock, or even earlier."
"I know, Colia told me that he had said he was off to — I forget the name, some friend of his, to finish the night."
"H'm! then Colia has spoken to you already?"
"Not about the theft."
"He does not know of it; I have kept it a secret. Very well, Ferdishenko went off to Wilkin's. That is not so curious in itself, but here the evidence opens out further. He left his address, you see, when he went. Now prince, consider, why did he leave his address? Why do you suppose he went out of his way to tell Colia that he had gone to Wilkin's? Who cared to know that he was going to Wilkin's? No, no! prince, this is finesse, thieves' finesse! This is as good as saying, 'There, how can I be a thief when I leave my address? I'm not concealing my movements as a thief would.' Do you understand, prince?"
"Oh yes, but that is not enough."
"Second proof. The scent turns out to be false, and the address given is a sham. An hour after — that is at about eight, I went to Wilkin's myself, and there was no trace of Ferdishenko. The maid did tell me, certainly, that an hour or so since someone had been hammering at the door, and had smashed the bell; she said she would not open the door because she didn't want to wake her master; probably she was too lazy to get up herself. Such phenomena are met with occasionally!"
"But is that all your evidence? It is not enough!"
"Well, prince, whom are we to suspect, then? Consider!" said Lebedeff with almost servile amiability, smiling at the prince. There was a look of cunning in his eyes, however.
"You should search your room and all the cupboards again," said the prince, after a moment or two of silent reflection.
"But I have done so, my dear prince!" said Lebedeff, more sweetly than ever.
"H'm! why must you needs go up and change your coat like that?" asked the prince, banging the table with his fist, in annoyance.
"Oh, don't be so worried on my account, prince! I assure you I am not worth it! At least, not I alone. But I see you are suffering on behalf of the criminal too, for wretched Ferdishenko, in fact!"
"Of course you have given me a disagreeable enough thing to think about," said the prince, irritably, "but what are you going to do, since you are so sure it was Ferdishenko?"
"But who else COULD it be, my very dear prince?" repeated Lebedeff, as sweet as sugar again. "If you don't wish me to suspect Mr. Burdovsky?"
"Of course not."
"Nor the general? Ha, ha, ha!"
"Nonsense!" said the prince, angrily, turning round upon him.
"Quite so, nonsense! Ha, ha, ha! dear me! He did amuse me, did the general! We went off on the hot scent to Wilkin's together, you know; but I must first observe that the general was even more thunderstruck than I myself this morning, when I awoke him after discovering the theft; so much so that his very face changed — he grew red and then pale, and at length flew into a paroxysm of such noble wrath that I assure you I was quite surprised! He is a most generous-hearted man! He tells lies by the thousands, I know, but it is merely a weakness; he is a man of the highest feelings; a simple-minded man too, and a man who carries the conviction of innocence in his very appearance. I love that man, sir; I may have told you so before; it is a weakness of mine. Well — he suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, opened out his coat and bared his breast. 'Search me,' he says, 'you searched Keller; why don't you search me too? It is only fair!' says he." And all the while his legs and hands were trembling with anger, and he as white as a sheet all over! So I said to him, "Nonsense, general; if anybody but yourself had said that to me, I'd have taken my head, my own head, and put it on a large dish and carried it round to anyone who suspected you; and I should have said: 'There, you see that head? It's my head, and I'll go bail with that head for him! Yes, and walk through the fire for him, too. There,' says I, 'that's how I'd answer for you, general!' Then he embraced me, in the middle of the street, and hugged me so tight (crying over me all the while) that I coughed fit to choke! 'You are the one friend left to me amid all my misfortunes,' says he. Oh, he's a man of sentiment, that! He went on to tell me a story of how he had been accused, or suspected, of stealing five hundred thousand roubles once, as a young man; and how, the very next day, he had rushed into a burning, blazing house and saved the very count who suspected him, and Nina Alexandrovna (who was then a young girl), from a fiery death. The count embraced him, and that was how he came to marry Nina Alexandrovna, he said. As for the money, it was found among the ruins next day in an English iron box with a secret lock; it had got under the floor somehow, and if it had not been for the fire it would never have been found! The whole thing is, of course, an absolute fabrication, though when he spoke of Nina Alexandrovna he wept! She's a grand woman, is Nina Alexandrovna, though she is very angry with me!"
"Are you acquainted with her?"
"Well, hardly at all. I wish I were, if only for the sake of justifying myself in her eyes. Nina Alexandrovna has a grudge against me for, as she thinks, encouraging her husband in drinking; whereas in reality I not only do not encourage him, but I actually keep him out of harm's way, and out of bad company. Besides, he's my friend, prince, so that I shall not lose sight of him, again. Where he goes, I go. He's quite given up visiting the captain's widow, though sometimes he thinks sadly of her, especially in the morning, when he's putting on his boots. I don't know why it's at that time. But he has no money, and it's no use his going to see her without. Has he borrowed any money from you, prince?"
"No, he has not."
"Ah, he's ashamed to! He MEANT to ask you, I know, for he said so. I suppose he thinks that as you gave him some once (you remember), you would probably refuse if he asked you again."
"Do you ever give him money?"
"Prince! Money! Why I would give that man not only my money, but my very life, if he wanted it. Well, perhaps that's exaggeration; not life, we'll say, but some illness, a boil or a bad cough, or anything of that sort, I would stand with pleasure, for his sake; for I consider him a great man fallen — money, indeed!"
"H'm, then you DO give him money?"
"N-no, I have never given him money, and he knows well that I will never give him any; because I am anxious to keep him out of intemperate ways. He is going to town with me now; for you must know I am off to Petersburg after Ferdishenko, while the scent is hot; I'm certain he is there. I shall let the general go one way, while I go the other; we have so arranged matters in order to pop out upon Ferdishenko, you see, from different sides. But I am going to follow that naughty old general and catch him, I know where, at a certain widow's house; for I think it will be a good lesson, to put him to shame by catching him with the widow."
"Oh, Lebedeff, don't, don't make any scandal about it!" said the prince, much agitated, and speaking in a low voice.
"Not for the world, not for the world! I merely wish to make him ashamed of himself. Oh, prince, great though this misfortune be to myself, I cannot help thinking of his morals! I have a great favour to ask of you, esteemed prince; I confess that it is the chief object of my visit. You know the Ivolgins, you have even lived in their house; so if you would lend me your help, honoured prince, in the general's own interest and for his good."
Lebedeff clasped his hands in supplication.
"What help do you want from me? You may be certain that I am most anxious to understand you, Lebedeff."
"I felt sure of that, or I should not have come to you. We might manage it with the help of Nina Alexandrovna, so that he might be closely watched in his own house. Unfortunately I am not on terms . . . otherwise . . . but Nicolai Ardalionovitch, who adores you with all his youthful soul, might help, too."
"No, no! Heaven forbid that we should bring Nina Alexandrovna into this business! Or Colia, either. But perhaps I have not yet quite understood you, Lebedeff?"
Lebedeff made an impatient movement.
"But there is nothing to understand! Sympathy and tenderness, that is all — that is all our poor invalid requires! You will permit me to consider him an invalid?"
"Yes, it shows delicacy and intelligence on your part."
"I will explain my idea by a practical example, to make it clearer. You know the sort of man he is. At present his only failing is that he is crazy about that captain's widow, and he cannot go to her without money, and I mean to catch him at her house today — for his own good; but supposing it was not only the widow, but that he had committed a real crime, or at least some very dishonourable action (of which he is, of course, incapable), I repeat that even in that case, if he were treated with what I may call generous tenderness, one could get at the whole truth, for he is very soft-hearted! Believe me, he would betray himself before five days were out; he would burst into tears, and make a clean breast of the matter; especially if managed with tact, and if you and his family watched his every step, so to speak. Oh, my dear prince," Lebedeff added most emphatically, "I do not positively assert that he has . . . I am ready, as the saying is, to shed my last drop of blood for him this instant; but you will admit that debauchery, drunkenness, and the captain's widow, all these together may lead him very far."
"I am, of course, quite ready to add my efforts to yours in such a case," said the prince, rising; "but I confess, Lebedeff, that I am terribly perplexed. Tell me, do you still think . . . plainly, you say yourself that you suspect Mr. Ferdishenko?"
Lebedeff clasped his hands once more.