"Do you know what, I had better not come at all tomorrow! I'll plead sick-list and stay away," said the prince, with decision.
Aglaya stamped her foot, and grew quite pale with anger.
"Oh, my goodness! Just listen to that! 'Better not come,' when the party is on purpose for him! Good Lord! What a delightful thing it is to have to do with such a — such a stupid as you are!"
"Well, I'll come, I'll come," interrupted the prince, hastily, "and I'll give you my word of honour that I will sit the whole evening and not say a word."
"I believe that's the best thing you can do. You said you'd 'plead sick-list' just now; where in the world do you get hold of such expressions? Why do you talk to me like this? Are you trying to irritate me, or what?"
"Forgive me, it's a schoolboy expression. I won't do it again. I know quite well, I see it, that you are anxious on my account (now, don't be angry), and it makes me very happy to see it. You wouldn't believe how frightened I am of misbehaving somehow, and how glad I am of your instructions. But all this panic is simply nonsense, you know, Aglaya! I give you my word it is; I am so pleased that you are such a child, such a dear good child. How CHARMING you can be if you like, Aglaya."
Aglaya wanted to be angry, of course, but suddenly some quite unexpected feeling seized upon her heart, all in a moment.
"And you won't reproach me for all these rude words of mine — some day — afterwards?" she asked, of a sudden.
"What an idea! Of course not. And what are you blushing for again? And there comes that frown once more! You've taken to looking too gloomy sometimes, Aglaya, much more than you used to. I know why it is."
"Be quiet, do be quiet!"
"No, no, I had much better speak out. I have long wished to say it, and HAVE said it, but that's not enough, for you didn't believe me. Between us two there stands a being who — "
"Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, be quiet!" Aglaya struck in, suddenly, seizing his hand in hers, and gazing at him almost in terror.
At this moment she was called by someone. She broke loose from him with an air of relief and ran away.
The prince was in a fever all night. It was strange, but he had suffered from fever for several nights in succession. On this particular night, while in semi-delirium, he had an idea: what if on the morrow he were to have a fit before everybody? The thought seemed to freeze his blood within him. All night he fancied himself in some extraordinary society of strange persons. The worst of it was that he was talking nonsense; he knew that he ought not to speak at all, and yet he talked the whole time; he seemed to be trying to persuade them all to something. Evgenie and Hippolyte were among the guests, and appeared to be great friends.
He awoke towards nine o'clock with a headache, full of confused ideas and strange impressions. For some reason or other he felt most anxious to see Rogojin, to see and talk to him, but what he wished to say he could not tell. Next, he determined to go and see Hippolyte. His mind was in a confused state, so much so that the incidents of the morning seemed to be imperfectly realized, though acutely felt.
One of these incidents was a visit from Lebedeff. Lebedeff came rather early — before ten — but he was tipsy already. Though the prince was not in an observant condition, yet he could not avoid seeing that for at least three days — ever since General Ivolgin had left the house Lebedeff had been behaving very badly. He looked untidy and dirty at all times of the day, and it was said that he had begun to rage about in his own house, and that his temper was very bad. As soon as he arrived this morning, he began to hold forth, beating his breast and apparently blaming himself for something.
"I've — I've had a reward for my meanness — I've had a slap in the face," he concluded, tragically.
"A slap in the face? From whom? And so early in the morning?"
"Early?" said Lebedeff, sarcastically. "Time counts for nothing, even in physical chastisement; but my slap in the face was not physical, it was moral."
He suddenly took a seat, very unceremoniously, and began his story. It was very disconnected; the prince frowned, and wished he could get away; but suddenly a few words struck him. He sat stiff with wonder — Lebedeff said some extraordinary things.
In the first place he began about some letter; the name of Aglaya Ivanovna came in. Then suddenly he broke off and began to accuse the prince of something; he was apparently offended with him. At first he declared that the prince had trusted him with his confidences as to "a certain person" (Nastasia Philipovna), but that of late his friendship had been thrust back into his bosom, and his innocent question as to "approaching family changes" had been curtly put aside, which Lebedeff declared, with tipsy tears, he could not bear; especially as he knew so much already both from Rogojin and Nastasia Philipovna and her friend, and from Varvara Ardalionovna, and even from Aglaya Ivanovna, through his daughter Vera. "And who told Lizabetha Prokofievna something in secret, by letter? Who told her all about the movements of a certain person called Nastasia Philipovna? Who was the anonymous person, eh? Tell me!"
"Surely not you?" cried the prince.
"Just so," said Lebedeff, with dignity; "and only this very morning I have sent up a letter to the noble lady, stating that I have a matter of great importance to communicate. She received the letter; I know she got it; and she received ME, too."
"Have you just seen Lizabetha Prokofievna?" asked the prince, scarcely believing his ears.
"Yes, I saw her, and got the said slap in the face as mentioned. She chucked the letter back to me unopened, and kicked me out of the house, morally, not physically, although not far off it."
"What letter do you mean she returned unopened?"
"What! didn't I tell you? Ha, ha, ha! I thought I had. Why, I received a letter, you know, to be handed over — "
"From whom? To whom?"
But it was difficult, if not impossible, to extract anything from Lebedeff. All the prince could gather was, that the letter had been received very early, and had a request written on the outside that it might be sent on to the address given.
"Just as before, sir, just as before! To a certain person, and from a certain hand. The individual's name who wrote the letter is to be represented by the letter A. — "
"What? Impossible! To Nastasia Philipovna? Nonsense!" cried the prince.
"It was, I assure you, and if not to her then to Rogojin, which is the same thing. Mr. Hippolyte has had letters, too, and all from the individual whose name begins with an A.," smirked Lebedeff, with a hideous grin.
As he kept jumping from subject to subject, and forgetting what he had begun to talk about, the prince said nothing, but waited, to give him time.
It was all very vague. Who had taken the letters, if letters there were? Probably Vera — and how could Lebedeff have got them? In all probability, he had managed to steal the present letter from Vera, and had himself gone over to Lizabetha Prokofievna with some idea in his head. So the prince concluded at last.
"You are mad!" he cried, indignantly.
"Not quite, esteemed prince," replied Lebedeff, with some acerbity. "I confess I thought of doing you the service of handing the letter over to yourself, but I decided that it would pay me better to deliver it up to the noble lady aforesaid, as I had informed her of everything hitherto by anonymous letters; so when I sent her up a note from myself, with the letter, you know, in order to fix a meeting for eight o'clock this morning, I signed it 'your secret correspondent.' They let me in at once — very quickly — by the back door, and the noble lady received me."
"Well? Go on."
"Oh, well, when I saw her she almost punched my head, as I say; in fact so nearly that one might almost say she did punch my head. She threw the letter in my face; she seemed to reflect first, as if she would have liked to keep it, but thought better of it and threw it in my face instead. 'If anybody can have been such a fool as to trust a man like you to deliver the letter,' says she,' take it and deliver it! 'Hey! she was grandly indignant. A fierce, fiery lady that, sir!"
"Where's the letter now?"