IN point of fact, Varia had rather exaggerated the certainty of her news as to the prince's betrothal to Aglaya. Very likely, with the perspicacity of her sex, she gave out as an accomplished fact what she felt was pretty sure to become a fact in a few days. Perhaps she could not resist the satisfaction of pouring one last drop of bitterness into her brother Gania's cup, in spite of her love for him. At all events, she had been unable to obtain any definite news from the Epanchin girls — the most she could get out of them being hints and surmises, and so on. Perhaps Aglaya's sisters had merely been pumping Varia for news while pretending to impart information; or perhaps, again, they had been unable to resist the feminine gratification of teasing a friend — for, after all this time, they could scarcely have helped divining the aim of her frequent visits.
On the other hand, the prince, although he had told Lebedeff, — as we know, that nothing had happened, and that he had nothing to impart, — the prince may have been in error. Something strange seemed to have happened, without anything definite having actually happened. Varia had guessed that with her true feminine instinct.
How or why it came about that everyone at the Epanchins' became imbued with one conviction — that something very important had happened to Aglaya, and that her fate was in process of settlement — it would be very difficult to explain. But no sooner had this idea taken root, than all at once declared that they had seen and observed it long ago; that they had remarked it at the time of the "poor knight" joke, and even before, though they had been unwilling to believe in such nonsense.
So said the sisters. Of course, Lizabetha Prokofievna had foreseen it long before the rest; her "heart had been sore" for a long while, she declared, and it was now so sore that she appeared to be quite overwhelmed, and the very thought of the prince became distasteful to her.
There was a question to be decided — most important, but most difficult; so much so, that Mrs. Epanchin did not even see how to put it into words. Would the prince do or not? Was all this good or bad? If good (which might be the case, of course), WHY good? If bad (which was hardly doubtful), WHEREIN, especially, bad? Even the general, the paterfamilias, though astonished at first, suddenly declared that, "upon his honour, he really believed he had fancied something of the kind, after all. At first, it seemed a new idea, and then, somehow, it looked as familiar as possible." His wife frowned him down there. This was in the morning; but in the evening, alone with his wife, he had given tongue again.
"Well, really, you know" — (silence) — "of course, you know all this is very strange, if true, which I cannot deny; but" — (silence). — "But, on the other hand, if one looks things in the face, you know — upon my honour, the prince is a rare good fellow — and — and — and — well, his name, you know — your family name — all this looks well, and perpetuates the name and title and all that — which at this moment is not standing so high as it might — from one point of view — don't you know? The world, the world is the world, of course — and people will talk — and — and — the prince has property, you know — if it is not very large — and then he — he — " (Continued silence, and collapse of the general.)
Hearing these words from her husband, Lizabetha Prokofievna was driven beside herself.
According to her opinion, the whole thing had been one huge, fantastical, absurd, unpardonable mistake. "First of all, this prince is an idiot, and, secondly, he is a fool — knows nothing of the world, and has no place in it. Whom can he be shown to? Where can you take him to? What will old Bielokonski say? We never thought of such a husband as THAT for our Aglaya!"
Of course, the last argument was the chief one. The maternal heart trembled with indignation to think of such an absurdity, although in that heart there rose another voice, which said: "And WHY is not the prince such a husband as you would have desired for Aglaya?" It was this voice which annoyed Lizabetha Prokofievna more than anything else.
For some reason or other, the sisters liked the idea of the prince. They did not even consider it very strange; in a word, they might be expected at any moment to range themselves strongly on his side. But both of them decided to say nothing either way. It had always been noticed in the family that the stronger Mrs. Epanchin's opposition was to any project, the nearer she was, in reality, to giving in.
Alexandra, however, found it difficult to keep absolute silence on the subject. Long since holding, as she did, the post of "confidential adviser to mamma," she was now perpetually called in council, and asked her opinion, and especially her assistance, in order to recollect "how on earth all this happened?" Why did no one see it? Why did no one say anything about it? What did all that wretched "poor knight" joke mean? Why was she, Lizabetha Prokofievna, driven to think, and foresee, and worry for everybody, while they all sucked their thumbs, and counted the crows in the garden, and did nothing? At first, Alexandra had been very careful, and had merely replied that perhaps her father's remark was not so far out: that, in the eyes of the world, probably the choice of the prince as a husband for one of the Epanchin girls would be considered a very wise one. Warming up, however, she added that the prince was by no means a fool, and never had been; and that as to "place in the world," no one knew what the position of a respectable person in Russia would imply in a few years — whether it would depend on successes in the government service, on the old system, or what.
To all this her mother replied that Alexandra was a freethinker, and that all this was due to that "cursed woman's rights question."
Half an hour after this conversation, she went off to town, and thence to the Kammenny Ostrof, ["Stone Island," a suburb and park of St. Petersburg] to see Princess Bielokonski, who had just arrived from Moscow on a short visit. The princess was Aglaya's godmother.
"Old Bielokonski" listened to all the fevered and despairing lamentations of Lizabetha Prokofievna without the least emotion; the tears of this sorrowful mother did not evoke answering sighs — in fact, she laughed at her. She was a dreadful old despot, this princess; she could not allow equality in anything, not even in friendship of the oldest standing, and she insisted on treating Mrs. Epanchin as her protegee, as she had been thirty-five years ago. She could never put up with the independence and energy of Lizabetha's character. She observed that, as usual, the whole family had gone much too far ahead, and had converted a fly into an elephant; that, so far as she had heard their story, she was persuaded that nothing of any seriousness had occurred; that it would surely be better to wait until something did happen; that the prince, in her opinion, was a very decent young fellow, though perhaps a little eccentric, through illness, and not quite as weighty in the world as one could wish. The worst feature was, she said, Nastasia Philipovna.
Lizabetha Prokofievna well understood that the old lady was angry at the failure of Evgenie Pavlovitch — her own recommendation. She returned home to Pavlofsk in a worse humour than when she left, and of course everybody in the house suffered. She pitched into everyone, because, she declared, they had 'gone mad.' Why were things always mismanaged in her house? Why had everybody been in such a frantic hurry in this matter? So far as she could see, nothing whatever had happened. Surely they had better wait and see what was to happen, instead of making mountains out of molehills.
And so the conclusion of the matter was that it would be far better to take it quietly, and wait coolly to see what would turn up. But, alas! peace did not reign for more than ten minutes. The first blow dealt to its power was in certain news communicated to Lizabetha Prokofievna as to events which bad happened during her trip to see the princess. (This trip had taken place the day after that on which the prince had turned up at the Epanchins at nearly one o'clock at night, thinking it was nine.)