"Oh, I've still got it, here!"
And he handed the prince the very letter from Aglaya to Gania, which the latter showed with so much triumph to his Sister at a later hour.
"This letter cannot be allowed to remain in your hands."
"It's for you — for you! I've brought it you on purpose!" cried Lebedeff, excitedly. "Why, I'm yours again now, heart and hand, your slave; there was but a momentary pause in the flow of my love and esteem for you. Mea culpa, mea culpa! as the Pope of Rome says.
"This letter should be sent on at once," said the prince, disturbed. "I'll hand it over myself."
"Wouldn't it be better, esteemed prince, wouldn't it be better — to — don't you know — "
Lebedeff made a strange and very expressive grimace; he twisted about in his chair, and did something, apparently symbolical, with his hands.
"What do you mean?" said the prince.
"Why, open it, for the time being, don't you know?" he said, most confidentially and mysteriously.
The prince jumped up so furiously that Lebedeff ran towards the door; having gained which strategic position, however, he stopped and looked back to see if he might hope for pardon.
"Oh, Lebedeff, Lebedeff! Can a man really sink to such depths of meanness?" said the prince, sadly.
Lebedeff's face brightened.
"Oh, I'm a mean wretch — a mean wretch!" he said, approaching the prince once more, and beating his breast, with tears in his eyes.
"It's abominable dishonesty, you know!"
"Dishonesty — it is, it is! That's the very word!"
"What in the world induces you to act so? You are nothing but a spy. Why did you write anonymously to worry so noble and generous a lady? Why should not Aglaya Ivanovna write a note to whomever she pleases? What did you mean to complain of today? What did you expect to get by it? What made you go at all?"
"Pure amiable curiosity, — I assure you — desire to do a service. That's all. Now I'm entirely yours again, your slave; hang me if you like!"
"Did you go before Lizabetha Prokofievna in your present condition?" inquired the prince.
"No — oh no, fresher — more the correct card. I only became this like after the humiliation I suffered there,
"Well — that'll do; now leave me."
This injunction had to be repeated several times before the man could be persuaded to move. Even then he turned back at the door, came as far as the middle of the room, and there went through his mysterious motions designed to convey the suggestion that the prince should open the letter. He did not dare put his suggestion into words again.
After this performance, he smiled sweetly and left the room on tiptoe.
All this had been very painful to listen to. One fact stood out certain and clear, and that was that poor Aglaya must be in a state of great distress and indecision and mental torment ("from jealousy," the prince whispered to himself). Undoubtedly in this inexperienced, but hot and proud little head, there were all sorts of plans forming, wild and impossible plans, maybe; and the idea of this so frightened the prince that he could not make up his mind what to do. Something must be done, that was clear.
He looked at the address on the letter once more. Oh, he was not in the least degree alarmed about Aglaya writing such a letter; he could trust her. What he did not like about it was that he could not trust Gania.
However, he made up his mind that he would himself take the note and deliver it. Indeed, he went so far as to leave the house and walk up the road, but changed his mind when he had nearly reached Ptitsin's door. However, he there luckily met Colia, and commissioned him to deliver the letter to his brother as if direct from Aglaya. Colia asked no questions but simply delivered it, and Gania consequently had no suspicion that it had passed through so many hands.
Arrived home again, the prince sent for Vera Lebedeff and told her as much as was necessary, in order to relieve her mind, for she had been in a dreadful state of anxiety since she had missed the letter. She heard with horror that her father had taken it. Muishkin learned from her that she had on several occasions performed secret missions both for Aglaya and for Rogojin, without, however, having had the slightest idea that in so doing she might injure the prince in any way.
The latter, with one thing and another, was now so disturbed and confused, that when, a couple of hours or so later, a message came from Colia that the general was ill, he could hardly take the news in.
However, when he did master the fact, it acted upon him as a tonic by completely distracting his attention. He went at once to Nina Alexandrovna's, whither the general had been carried, and stayed there until the evening. He could do no good, but there are people whom to have near one is a blessing at such times. Colia was in an almost hysterical state; he cried continuously, but was running about all day, all the same; fetching doctors, of whom he collected three; going to the chemist's, and so on.
The general was brought round to some extent, but the doctors declared that he could not be said to be out of danger. Varia and Nina Alexandrovna never left the sick man's bedside; Gania was excited and distressed, but would not go upstairs, and seemed afraid to look at the patient. He wrung his hands when the prince spoke to him, and said that "such a misfortune at such a moment" was terrible.
The prince thought he knew what Gania meant by "such a moment."
Hippolyte was not in the house. Lebedeff turned up late in the afternoon; he had been asleep ever since his interview with the prince in the morning. He was quite sober now, and cried with real sincerity over the sick general — mourning for him as though he were his own brother. He blamed himself aloud, but did not explain why. He repeated over and over again to Nina Alexandrovna that he alone was to blame — no one else — but that he had acted out of "pure amiable curiosity," and that "the deceased," as he insisted upon calling the still living general, had been the greatest of geniuses.
He laid much stress on the genius of the sufferer, as if this idea must be one of immense solace in the present crisis.
Nina Alexandrovna — seeing his sincerity of feeling — said at last, and without the faintest suspicion of reproach in her voice: "Come, come — don't cry! God will forgive you!"
Lebedeff was so impressed by these words, and the tone in which they were spoken, that he could not leave Nina Alexandrovna all the evening — in fact, for several days. Till the general's death, indeed, he spent almost all his time at his side.
Twice during the day a messenger came to Nina Alexandrovna from the Epanchins to inquire after the invalid.
When — late in the evening — the prince made his appearance in Lizabetha Prokofievna's drawing-room, he found it full of guests. Mrs. Epanchin questioned him very fully about the general as soon as he appeared; and when old Princess Bielokonski wished to know "who this general was, and who was Nina Alexandrovna," she proceeded to explain in a manner which pleased the prince very much.
He himself, when relating the circumstances of the general's illness to Lizabetha Prokofievna, "spoke beautifully," as Aglaya's sisters declared afterwards — "modestly, quietly, without gestures or too many words, and with great dignity." He had entered the room with propriety and grace, and he was perfectly dressed; he not only did not "fall down on the slippery floor," as he had expressed it, but evidently made a very favourable impression upon the assembled guests.
As for his own impression on entering the room and taking his seat, he instantly remarked that the company was not in the least such as Aglaya's words had led him to fear, and as he had dreamed of — in nightmare form — all night.
This was the first time in his life that he had seen a little corner of what was generally known by the terrible name of "society." He had long thirsted, for reasons of his own, to penetrate the mysteries of the magic circle, and, therefore, this assemblage was of the greatest possible interest to him.