"Why, who else could I possibly suspect? Who else, most outspoken prince?" he replied, with an unctuous smile.
Muishkin frowned, and rose from his seat.
"You see, Lebedeff, a mistake here would be a dreadful thing. This Ferdishenko, I would not say a word against him, of course; but, who knows? Perhaps it really was he? I mean he really does seem to be a more likely man than . . . than any other."
Lebedeff strained his eyes and ears to take in what the prince was saying. The latter was frowning more and more, and walking excitedly up and down, trying not to look at Lebedeff.
"You see," he said, "I was given to understand that Ferdishenko was that sort of man, — that one can't say everything before him. One has to take care not to say too much, you understand? I say this to prove that he really is, so to speak, more likely to have done this than anyone else, eh? You understand? The important thing is, not to make a mistake."
"And who told you this about Ferdishenko?"
"Oh, I was told. Of course I don't altogether believe it. I am very sorry that I should have had to say this, because I assure you I don't believe it myself; it is all nonsense, of course. It was stupid of me to say anything about it."
"You see, it is very important, it is most important to know where you got this report from," said Lebedeff, excitedly. He had risen from his seat, and was trying to keep step with the prince, running after him, up and down. "Because look here, prince, I don't mind telling you now that as we were going along to Wilkin's this morning, after telling me what you know about the fire, and saving the count and all that, the general was pleased to drop certain hints to the same effect about Ferdishenko, but so vaguely and clumsily that I thought better to put a few questions to him on the matter, with the result that I found the whole thing was an invention of his excellency's own mind. Of course, he only lies with the best intentions; still, he lies. But, such being the case, where could you have heard the same report? It was the inspiration of the moment with him, you understand, so who could have told YOU? It is an important question, you see!"
"It was Colia told me, and his father told HIM at about six this morning. They met at the threshold, when Colia was leaving the room for something or other." The prince told Lebedeff all that Colia had made known to himself, in detail.
"There now, that's what we may call SCENT!" said Lebedeff, rubbing his hands and laughing silently. "I thought it must be so, you see. The general interrupted his innocent slumbers, at six o'clock, in order to go and wake his beloved son, and warn him of the dreadful danger of companionship with Ferdishenko. Dear me! what a dreadfully dangerous man Ferdishenko must be, and what touching paternal solicitude, on the part of his excellency, ha! ha! ha!"
"Listen, Lebedeff," began the prince, quite overwhelmed; "DO act quietly — don't make a scandal, Lebedeff, I ask you — I entreat you! No one must know — NO ONE, mind! In that case only, I will help you."
"Be assured, most honourable, most worthy of princes — be assured that the whole matter shall be buried within my heart!" cried Lebedeff, in a paroxysm of exaltation. "I'd give every drop of my blood . . . Illustrious prince, I am a poor wretch in soul and spirit, but ask the veriest scoundrel whether he would prefer to deal with one like himself, or with a noble-hearted man like you, and there is no doubt as to his choice! He'll answer that he prefers the noble-hearted man — and there you have the triumph of virtue! Au revoir, honoured prince! You and I together — softly! softly!"
THE prince understood at last why he shivered with dread every time he thought of the three letters in his pocket, and why he had put off reading them until the evening.
When he fell into a heavy sleep on the sofa on the verandah, without having had the courage to open a single one of the three envelopes, he again dreamed a painful dream, and once more that poor, "sinful" woman appeared to him. Again she gazed at him with tears sparkling on her long lashes, and beckoned him after her; and again he awoke, as before, with the picture of her face haunting him.
He longed to get up and go to her at once — but he COULD NOT. At length, almost in despair, he unfolded the letters, and began to read them.
These letters, too, were like a dream. We sometimes have strange, impossible dreams, contrary to all the laws of nature. When we awake we remember them and wonder at their strangeness. You remember, perhaps, that you were in full possession of your reason during this succession of fantastic images; even that you acted with extraordinary logic and cunning while surrounded by murderers who hid their intentions and made great demonstrations of friendship, while waiting for an opportunity to cut your throat. You remember how you escaped them by some ingenious stratagem; then you doubted if they were really deceived, or whether they were only pretending not to know your hiding-place; then you thought of another plan and hoodwinked them once again. You remember all this quite clearly, but how is it that your reason calmly accepted all the manifest absurdities and impossibilities that crowded into your dream? One of the murderers suddenly changed into a woman before your very eyes; then the woman was transformed into a hideous, cunning little dwarf; and you believed it, and accepted it all almost as a matter of course — while at the same time your intelligence seemed unusually keen, and accomplished miracles of cunning, sagacity, and logic! Why is it that when you awake to the world of realities you nearly always feel, sometimes very vividly, that the vanished dream has carried with it some enigma which you have failed to solve? You smile at the extravagance of your dream, and yet you feel that this tissue of absurdity contained some real idea, something that belongs to your true life, — something that exists, and has always existed, in your heart. You search your dream for some prophecy that you were expecting. It has left a deep impression upon you, joyful or cruel, but what it means, or what has been predicted to you in it, you can neither understand nor remember.
The reading of these letters produced some such effect upon the prince. He felt, before he even opened the envelopes, that the very fact of their existence was like a nightmare. How could she ever have made up her mind to write to her? he asked himself. How could she write about that at all? And how could such a wild idea have entered her head? And yet, the strangest part of the matter was, that while he read the letters, he himself almost believed in the possibility, and even in the justification, of the idea he had thought so wild. Of course it was a mad dream, a nightmare, and yet there was something cruelly real about it. For hours he was haunted by what he had read. Several passages returned again and again to his mind, and as he brooded over them, he felt inclined to say to himself that he had foreseen and known all that was written here; it even seemed to him that he had read the whole of this some time or other, long, long ago; and all that had tormented and grieved him up to now was to be found in these old, long since read, letters.
"When you open this letter" (so the first began), "look first at the signature. The signature will tell you all, so that I need explain nothing, nor attempt to justify myself. Were I in any way on a footing with you, you might be offended at my audacity; but who am I, and who are you? We are at such extremes, and I am so far removed from you, that I could not offend you if I wished to do so."
Farther on, in another place, she wrote: "Do not consider my words as the sickly ecstasies of a diseased mind, but you are, in my opinion — perfection! I have seen you — I see you every day. I do not judge you; I have not weighed you in the scales of Reason and found you Perfection — it is simply an article of faith. But I must confess one sin against you — I love you. One should not love perfection. One should only look on it as perfection — yet I am in love with you. Though love equalizes, do not fear. I have not lowered you to my level, even in my most secret thoughts. I have written 'Do not fear,' as if you could fear. I would kiss your footprints if I could; but, oh! I am not putting myself on a level with you! — Look at the signature — quick, look at the signature!"
"However, observe" (she wrote in another of the letters), "that although I couple you with him, yet I have not once asked you whether you love him. He fell in love with you, though he saw you but once. He spoke of you as of 'the light.' These are his own words — I heard him use them. But I understood without his saying it that you were all that light is to him. I lived near him for a whole month, and I understood then that you, too, must love him. I think of you and him as one."
"What was the matter yesterday?" (she wrote on another sheet). "I passed by you, and you seemed to me to BLUSH. Perhaps it was only my fancy. If I were to bring you to the most loathsome den, and show you the revelation of undisguised vice — you should not blush. You can never feel the sense of personal affront. You may hate all who are mean, or base, or unworthy — but not for yourself — only for those whom they wrong. No one can wrong YOU. Do you know, I think you ought to love me — for you are the same in my eyes as in his-you are as light. An angel cannot hate, perhaps cannot love, either. I often ask myself — is it possible to love everybody? Indeed it is not; it is not in nature. Abstract love of humanity is nearly always love of self. But you are different. You cannot help loving all, since you can compare with none, and are above all personal offence or anger. Oh! how bitter it would be to me to know that you felt anger or shame on my account, for that would be your fall — you would become comparable at once with such as me.
"Yesterday, after seeing you, I went home and thought out a picture.
"Artists always draw the Saviour as an actor in one of the Gospel stories. I should do differently. I should represent Christ alone — the disciples did leave Him alone occasionally. I should paint one little child left with Him. This child has been playing about near Him, and had probably just been telling the Saviour something in its pretty baby prattle. Christ had listened to it, but was now musing — one hand reposing on the child's bright head. His eyes have a far-away expression. Thought, great as the Universe, is in them — His face is sad. The little one leans its elbow upon Christ's knee, and with its cheek resting on its hand, gazes up at Him, pondering as children sometimes do ponder. The sun is setting. There you have my picture.
"You are innocent — and in your innocence lies all your perfection — oh, remember that! What is my passion to you? — you are mine now; I shall be near you all my life — I shall not live long!"
At length, in the last letter of all, he found:
"For Heaven's sake, don't misunderstand me! Do not think that I humiliate myself by writing thus to you, or that I belong to that class of people who take a satisfaction in humiliating themselves — from pride. I have my consolation, though it would be difficult to explain it — but I do not humiliate myself.
"Why do I wish to unite you two? For your sakes or my own? For my own sake, naturally. All the problems of my life would thus be solved; I have thought so for a long time. I know that once when your sister Adelaida saw my portrait she said that such beauty could overthrow the world. But I have renounced the world. You think it strange that I should say so, for you saw me decked with lace and diamonds, in the company of drunkards and wastrels. Take no notice of that; I know that I have almost ceased to exist. God knows what it is dwelling within me now — it is not myself. I can see it every day in two dreadful eyes which are always looking at me, even when not present. These eyes are silent now, they say nothing; but I know their secret. His house is gloomy, and there is a secret in it. I am convinced that in some box he has a razor hidden, tied round with silk, just like the one that Moscow murderer had. This man also lived with his mother, and had a razor hidden away, tied round with white silk, and with this razor he intended to cut a throat.