The sisters replied candidly and fully enough to their mother's impatient questions on her return. They said, in the first place, that nothing particular had happened since her departure; that the prince had been, and that Aglaya had kept him waiting a long while before she appeared — half an hour, at least; that she had then come in, and immediately asked the prince to have a game of chess; that the prince did not know the game, and Aglaya had beaten him easily; that she had been in a wonderfully merry mood, and had laughed at the prince, and chaffed him so unmercifully that one was quite sorry to see his wretched expression.
She had then asked him to play cards — the game called "little fools." At this game the tables were turned completely, for the prince had shown himself a master at it. Aglaya had cheated and changed cards, and stolen others, in the most bare-faced way, but, in spite of everything the prince had beaten her hopelessly five times running, and she had been left "little fool" each time.
Aglaya then lost her temper, and began to say such awful things to the prince that he laughed no more, but grew dreadfully pale, especially when she said that she should not remain in the house with him, and that he ought to be ashamed of coming to their house at all, especially at night, "AFTER ALL THAT HAD HAPPENED."
So saying, she had left the room, banging the door after her, and the prince went off, looking as though he were on his way to a funeral, in spite of all their attempts at consolation.
Suddenly, a quarter of an hour after the prince's departure, Aglaya had rushed out of her room in such a hurry that she had not even wiped her eyes, which were full of tears. She came back because Colia had brought a hedgehog. Everybody came in to see the hedgehog. In answer to their questions Colia explained that the hedgehog was not his, and that he had left another boy, Kostia Lebedeff, waiting for him outside. Kostia was too shy to come in, because he was carrying a hatchet; they had bought the hedgehog and the hatchet from a peasant whom they had met on the road. He had offered to sell them the hedgehog, and they had paid fifty copecks for it; and the hatchet had so taken their fancy that they had made up their minds to buy it of their own accord. On hearing this, Aglaya urged Colia to sell her the hedgehog; she even called him "dear Colia," in trying to coax him. He refused for a long time, but at last he could hold out no more, and went to fetch Kostia Lebedeff. The latter appeared, carrying his hatchet, and covered with confusion. Then it came out that the hedgehog was not theirs, but the property of a schoolmate, one Petroff, who had given them some money to buy Schlosser's History for him, from another schoolfellow who at that moment was driven to raising money by the sale of his books. Colia and Kostia were about to make this purchase for their friend when chance brought the hedgehog to their notice, and they had succumbed to the temptation of buying it. They were now taking Petroff the hedgehog and hatchet which they had bought with his money, instead of Schiosser's History. But Aglaya so entreated them that at last they consented to sell her the hedgehog. As soon as she had got possession of it, she put it in a wicker basket with Colia's help, and covered it with a napkin. Then she said to Colia: "Go and take this hedgehog to the prince from me, and ask him to accept it as a token of my profound respect." Colia joyfully promised to do the errand, but he demanded explanations. "What does the hedgehog mean? What is the meaning of such a present?" Aglaya replied that it was none of his business. "I am sure that there is some allegory about it," Colia persisted. Aglaya grew angry, and called him "a silly boy." "If I did not respect all women in your person," replied Colia, "and if my own principles would permit it, I would soon prove to you, that I know how to answer such an insult!" But, in the end, Colia went off with the hedgehog in great delight, followed by Kostia Lebedeff. Aglaya's annoyance was soon over, and seeing that Colia was swinging the hedgehog's basket violently to and fro, she called out to him from the verandah, as if they had never quarrelled: "Colia, dear, please take care not to drop him!" Colia appeared to have no grudge against her, either, for he stopped, and answered most cordially: "No, I will not drop him! Don't be afraid, Aglaya Ivanovna!" After which he went on his way. Aglaya burst out laughing and ran up to her room, highly delighted. Her good spirits lasted the whole day.
All this filled poor Lizabetha's mind with chaotic confusion. What on earth did it all mean? The most disturbing feature was the hedgehog. What was the symbolic signification of a hedgehog? What did they understand by it? What underlay it? Was it a cryptic message?
Poor General Epanchin "put his foot in it" by answering the above questions in his own way. He said there was no cryptic message at all. As for the hedgehog, it was just a hedgehog, which meant nothing — unless, indeed, it was a pledge of friendship, — the sign of forgetting of offences and so on. At all events, it was a joke, and, of course, a most pardonable and innocent one.
We may as well remark that the general had guessed perfectly accurately.
The prince, returning home from the interview with Aglaya, had sat gloomy and depressed for half an hour. He was almost in despair when Colia arrived with the hedgehog.
Then the sky cleared in a moment. The prince seemed to arise from the dead; he asked Colia all about it, made him repeat the story over and over again, and laughed and shook hands with the boys in his delight.
It seemed clear to the prince that Aglaya forgave him, and that he might go there again this very evening; and in his eyes that was not only the main thing, but everything in the world.
"What children we are still, Colia!" he cried at last, enthusiastically, — "and how delightful it is that we can be children still!"
"Simply — my dear prince, — simply she is in love with you, — that's the whole of the secret!" replied Colia, with authority.
The prince blushed, but this time he said nothing. Colia burst out laughing and clapped his hands. A minute later the prince laughed too, and from this moment until the evening he looked at his watch every other minute to see how much time he had to wait before evening came.
But the situation was becoming rapidly critical.
Mrs. Epanchin could bear her suspense no longer, and in spite of the opposition of husband and daughters, she sent for Aglaya, determined to get a straightforward answer out of her, once for all.
"Otherwise," she observed hysterically, "I shall die before evening."
It was only now that everyone realized to what a ridiculous dead-lock the whole matter had been brought. Excepting feigned surprise, indignation, laughter, and jeering — both at the prince and at everyone who asked her questions, — nothing could be got out of Aglaya.
Lizabetha Prokofievna went to bed and only rose again in time for tea, when the prince might be expected.
She awaited him in trembling agitation; and when he at last arrived she nearly went off into hysterics.
Muishkin himself came in very timidly. He seemed to feel his way, and looked in each person's eyes in a questioning way, — for Aglaya was absent, which fact alarmed him at once.
This evening there were no strangers present — no one but the immediate members of the family. Prince S. was still in town, occupied with the affairs of Evgenie Pavlovitch's uncle.
"I wish at least HE would come and say something!" complained poor Lizabetha Prokofievna.
The general sat still with a most preoccupied air. The sisters were looking very serious and did not speak a word, and Lizabetha Prokofievna did not know how to commence the conversation.
At length she plunged into an energetic and hostile criticism of railways, and glared at the prince defiantly.
Alas Aglaya still did not come — and the prince was quite lost. He had the greatest difficulty in expressing his opinion that railways were most useful institutions, — and in the middle of his speech Adelaida laughed, which threw him into a still worse state of confusion.
At this moment in marched Aglaya, as calm and collected as could be. She gave the prince a ceremonious bow and solemnly took up a prominent position near the big round table. She looked at the prince questioningly.
All present realized that the moment for the settlement of perplexities had arrived.
"Did you get my hedgehog?" she inquired, firmly and almost angrily.
"Yes, I got it," said the prince, blushing.
"Tell us now, at once, what you made of the present? I must have you answer this question for mother's sake; she needs pacifying, and so do all the rest of the family!"
"Look here, Aglaya — " began the general.
"This — this is going beyond all limits!" said Lizabetha Prokofievna, suddenly alarmed.
"It is not in the least beyond all limits, mamma!" said her daughter, firmly. "I sent the prince a hedgehog this morning, and I wish to hear his opinion of it. Go on, prince."
"What — what sort of opinion, Aglaya Ivanovna?"