AFTER moistening his lips with the tea which Vera Lebedeff brought him, Hippolyte set the cup down on the table, and glanced round. He seemed confused and almost at a loss.
"Just look, Lizabetha Prokofievna," he began, with a kind of feverish haste; "these china cups are supposed to be extremely valuable. Lebedeff always keeps them locked up in his china-cupboard; they were part of his wife's dowry. Yet he has brought them out tonight — in your honour, of course! He is so pleased — " He was about to add something else, but could not find the words.
"There, he is feeling embarrassed; I expected as much," whispered Evgenie Pavlovitch suddenly in the prince's ear. "It is a bad sign; what do you think? Now, out of spite, he will come out with something so outrageous that even Lizabetha Prokofievna will not be able to stand it."
Muishkin looked at him inquiringly.
"You do not care if he does?" added Evgenie Pavlovitch. "Neither do I; in fact, I should be glad, merely as a proper punishment for our dear Lizabetha Prokofievna. I am very anxious that she should get it, without delay, and I shall stay till she does. You seem feverish."
"Never mind; by-and-by; yes, I am not feeling well," said the prince impatiently, hardly listening. He had just heard Hippolyte mention his own name.
"You don't believe it?" said the invalid, with a nervous laugh. "I don't wonder, but the prince will have no difficulty in believing it; he will not be at all surprised."
"Do you hear, prince — do you hear that?" said Lizabetha Prokofievna, turning towards him.
There was laughter in the group around her, and Lebedeff stood before her gesticulating wildly.
"He declares that your humbug of a landlord revised this gentleman's article — the article that was read aloud just now — in which you got such a charming dressing-down."
The prince regarded Lebedeff with astonishment.
"Why don't you say something?" cried Lizabetha Prokofievna, stamping her foot.
"Well," murmured the prince, with his eyes still fixed on Lebedeff, "I can see now that he did."
"Is it true?" she asked eagerly.
"Absolutely, your excellency," said Lebedeff, without the least hesitation.
Mrs. Epanchin almost sprang up in amazement at his answer, and at the assurance of his tone.
"He actually seems to boast of it!" she cried.
"I am base — base!" muttered Lebedeff, beating his breast, and hanging his head.
"What do I care if you are base or not? He thinks he has only to say, 'I am base,' and there is an end of it. As to you, prince, are you not ashamed? — I repeat, are you not ashamed, to mix with such riff-raff? I will never forgive you!"
"The prince will forgive me!" said Lebedeff with emotional conviction.
Keller suddenly left his seat, and approached Lizabetha. Prokofievna.
"It was only out of generosity, madame," he said in a resonant voice, "and because I would not betray a friend in an awkward position, that I did not mention this revision before; though you heard him yourself threatening to kick us down the steps. To clear the matter up, I declare now that I did have recourse to his assistance, and that I paid him six roubles for it. But I did not ask him to correct my style; I simply went to him for information concerning the facts, of which I was ignorant to a great extent, and which he was competent to give. The story of the gaiters, the appetite in the Swiss professor's house, the substitution of fifty roubles for two hundred and fifty — all such details, in fact, were got from him. I paid him six roubles for them; but he did not correct the style."
"I must state that I only revised the first part of the article," interposed Lebedeff with feverish impatience, while laughter rose from all around him; "but we fell out in the middle over one idea, so I never corrected the second part. Therefore I cannot be held responsible for the numerous grammatical blunders in it."
"That is all he thinks of!" cried Lizabetha Prokofievna.
"May I ask when this article was revised?" said Evgenie Pavlovitch to Keller.
"Yesterday morning," he replied, "we had an interview which we all gave our word of honour to keep secret."
"The very time when he was cringing before you and making protestations of devotion! Oh, the mean wretches! I will have nothing to do with your Pushkin, and your daughter shall not set foot in my house!"
Lizabetha Prokofievna was about to rise, when she saw Hippolyte laughing, and turned upon him with irritation.
"Well, sir, I suppose you wanted to make me look ridiculous?"
"Heaven forbid!" he answered, with a forced smile. "But I am more than ever struck by your eccentricity, Lizabetha Prokofievna. I admit that I told you of Lebedeff's duplicity, on purpose. I knew the effect it would have on you, — on you alone, for the prince will forgive him. He has probably forgiven him already, and is racking his brains to find some excuse for him — is not that the truth, prince?"
He gasped as he spoke, and his strange agitation seemed to increase.
"Well?" said Mrs. Epanchin angrily, surprised at his tone; "well, what more?"
"I have heard many things of the kind about you . . . they delighted me . . . I have learned to hold you in the highest esteem," continued Hippolyte.
His words seemed tinged with a kind of sarcastic mockery, yet he was extremely agitated, casting suspicious glances around him, growing confused, and constantly losing the thread of his ideas. All this, together with his consumptive appearance, and the frenzied expression of his blazing eyes, naturally attracted the attention of everyone present.
"I might have been surprised (though I admit I know nothing of the world), not only that you should have stayed on just now in the company of such people as myself and my friends, who are not of your class, but that you should let these . . . young ladies listen to such a scandalous affair, though no doubt novel-reading has taught them all there is to know. I may be mistaken; I hardly know what I am saying; but surely no one but you would have stayed to please a whippersnapper (yes, a whippersnapper; I admit it) to spend the evening and take part in everything — only to be ashamed of it tomorrow. (I know I express myself badly.) I admire and appreciate it all extremely, though the expression on the face of his excellency, your husband, shows that he thinks it very improper. He-he!" He burst out laughing, and was seized with a fit of coughing which lasted for two minutes and prevented him from speaking.
"He has lost his breath now!" said Lizabetha Prokofievna coldly, looking at him with more curiosity than pity: "Come, my dear boy, that is quite enough — let us make an end of this."
Ivan Fedorovitch, now quite out of patience, interrupted suddenly. "Let me remark in my turn, sir," he said in tones of deep annoyance, "that my wife is here as the guest of Prince Lef Nicolaievitch, our friend and neighbour, and that in any case, young man, it is not for you to pass judgment on the conduct of Lizabetha Prokofievna, or to make remarks aloud in my presence concerning what feelings you think may be read in my face. Yes, my wife stayed here," continued the general, with increasing irritation, "more out of amazement than anything else. Everyone can understand that a collection of such strange young men would attract the attention of a person interested in contemporary life. I stayed myself, just as I sometimes stop to look on in the street when I see something that may be regarded as-as-as-"
"As a curiosity," suggested Evgenie Pavlovitch, seeing his excellency involved in a comparison which he could not complete.
"That is exactly the word I wanted," said the general with satisfaction — "a curiosity. However, the most astonishing and, if I may so express myself, the most painful, thing in this matter, is that you cannot even understand, young man, that Lizabetha Prokofievna, only stayed with you because you are ill, — if you really are dying — moved by the pity awakened by your plaintive appeal, and that her name, character, and social position place her above all risk of contamination. Lizabetha Prokofievna!" he continued, now crimson with rage, "if you are coming, we will say goodnight to the prince, and — "