The prince listened, smiling.
"Wasn't it you," he said, suddenly turning to the old gentleman, "who saved the student Porkunoff and a clerk called Shoabrin from being sent to Siberia, two or three months since?"
The old dignitary blushed a little, and murmured that the prince had better not excite himself further.
"And I have heard of YOU," continued the prince, addressing Ivan Petrovitch, "that when some of your villagers were burned out you gave them wood to build up their houses again, though they were no longer your serfs and had behaved badly towards you."
"Oh, come, come! You are exaggerating," said Ivan Petrovitch, beaming with satisfaction, all the same. He was right, however, in this instance, for the report had reached the prince's ears in an incorrect form.
"And you, princess," he went on, addressing Princess Bielokonski, "was it not you who received me in Moscow, six months since, as kindly as though I had been your own son, in response to a letter from Lizabetha Prokofievna; and gave me one piece of advice, again as to your own son, which I shall never forget? Do you remember?"
"What are you making such a fuss about?" said the old lady, with annoyance. "You are a good fellow, but very silly. One gives you a halfpenny, and you are as grateful as though one had saved your life. You think this is praiseworthy on your part, but it is not — it is not, indeed."
She seemed to be very angry, but suddenly burst out laughing, quite good-humouredly.
Lizabetha Prokofievna's face brightened up, too; so did that of General Epanchin.
"I told you Lef Nicolaievitch was a man — a man — if only he would not be in such a hurry, as the princess remarked," said the latter, with delight.
Aglaya alone seemed sad and depressed; her face was flushed, perhaps with indignation.
"He really is very charming," whispered the old dignitary to Ivan Petrovitch.
"I came into this room with anguish in my heart," continued the prince, with ever-growing agitation, speaking quicker and quicker, and with increasing strangeness. "I — I was afraid of you all, and afraid of myself. I was most afraid of myself. When I returned to Petersburg, I promised myself to make a point of seeing our greatest men, and members of our oldest families — the old families like my own. I am now among princes like myself, am I not? I wished to know you, and it was necessary, very, very necessary. I had always heard so much that was evil said of you all — more evil than good; as to how small and petty were your interests, how absurd your habits, how shallow your education, and so on. There is so much written and said about you! I came here today with anxious curiosity; I wished to see for myself and form my own convictions as to whether it were true that the whole of this upper stratum of Russian society is WORTHLESS, has outlived its time, has existed too long, and is only fit to die — and yet is dying with petty, spiteful warring against that which is destined to supersede it and take its place — hindering the Coming Men, and knowing not that itself is in a dying condition. I did not fully believe in this view even before, for there never was such a class among us — excepting perhaps at court, by accident — or by uniform; but now there is not even that, is there? It has vanished, has it not?"
"No, not a bit of it," said Ivan Petrovitch, with a sarcastic laugh.
"Good Lord, he's off again!" said Princess Bielokonski, impatiently.
"Laissez-le dire! He is trembling all over," said the old man, in a warning whisper.
The prince certainly was beside himself.
"Well? What have I seen?" he continued. "I have seen men of graceful simplicity of intellect; I have seen an old man who is not above speaking kindly and even LISTENING to a boy like myself; I see before me persons who can understand, who can forgive — kind, good Russian hearts — hearts almost as kind and cordial as I met abroad. Imagine how delighted I must have been, and how surprised! Oh, let me express this feeling! I have so often heard, and I have even believed, that in society there was nothing but empty forms, and that reality had vanished; but I now see for myself that this can never be the case HERE, among us — it may be the order elsewhere, but not in Russia. Surely you are not all Jesuits and deceivers! I heard Prince N.'s story just now. Was it not simple-minded, spontaneous humour? Could such words come from the lips of a man who is dead? — a man whose heart and talents are dried up? Could dead men and women have treated me so kindly as you have all been treating me to-day? Is there not material for the future in all this — for hope? Can such people fail to UNDERSTAND? Can such men fall away from reality?"
"Once more let us beg you to be calm, my dear boy. We'll talk of all this another time — I shall do so with the greatest pleasure, for one," said the old dignitary, with a smile.
Ivan Petrovitch grunted and twisted round in his chair. General Epanchin moved nervously. The latter's chief had started a conversation with the wife of the dignitary, and took no notice whatever of the prince, but the old lady very often glanced at him, and listened to what he was saying.
"No, I had better speak," continued the prince, with a new outburst of feverish emotion, and turning towards the old man with an air of confidential trustfulness. "Yesterday, Aglaya Ivanovna forbade me to talk, and even specified the particular subjects I must not touch upon — she knows well enough that I am odd when I get upon these matters. I am nearly twenty-seven years old, and yet I know I am little better than a child. I have no right to express my ideas, and said so long ago. Only in Moscow, with Rogojin, did I ever speak absolutely freely! He and I read Pushkin together — all his works. Rogojin knew nothing of Pushkin, had not even heard his name. I am always afraid of spoiling a great Thought or Idea by my absurd manner. I have no eloquence, I know. I always make the wrong gestures — inappropriate gestures — and therefore I degrade the Thought, and raise a laugh instead of doing my subject justice. I have no sense of proportion either, and that is the chief thing. I know it would be much better if I were always to sit still and say nothing. When I do so, I appear to be quite a sensible sort of a person, and what's more, I think about things. But now I must speak; it is better that I should. I began to speak because you looked so kindly at me; you have such a beautiful face. I promised Aglaya Ivanovna yesterday that I would not speak all the evening."
"Really?" said the old man, smiling.
"But, at times, I can't help thinking that I am wrong in feeling so about it, you know. Sincerity is more important than elocution, isn't it?"
"I want to explain all to you — everything — everything! I know you think me Utopian, don't you — an idealist? Oh, no! I'm not, indeed — my ideas are all so simple. You don't believe me? You are smiling. Do you know, I am sometimes very wicked — for I lose my faith? This evening as I came here, I thought to myself, 'What shall I talk about? How am I to begin, so that they may be able to understand partially, at all events?' How afraid I was — dreadfully afraid! And yet, how COULD I be afraid — was it not shameful of me? Was I afraid of finding a bottomless abyss of empty selfishness? Ah! that's why I am so happy at this moment, because I find there is no bottomless abyss at all — but good, healthy material, full of life.
"It is not such a very dreadful circumstance that we are odd people, is it? For we really are odd, you know — careless, reckless, easily wearied of anything. We don't look thoroughly into matters — don't care to understand things. We are all like this — you and I, and all of them! Why, here are you, now — you are not a bit angry with me for calling you odd,' are you? And, if so, surely there is good material in you? Do you know, I sometimes think it is a good thing to be odd. We can forgive one another more easily, and be more humble. No one can begin by being perfect — there is much one cannot understand in life at first. In order to attain to perfection, one must begin by failing to understand much. And if we take in knowledge too quickly, we very likely are not taking it in at all. I say all this to you — you who by this time understand so much — and doubtless have failed to understand so much, also. I am not afraid of you any longer. You are not angry that a mere boy should say such words to you, are you? Of course not! You know how to forget and to forgive. You are laughing, Ivan Petrovitch? You think I am a champion of other classes of people — that I am THEIR advocate, a democrat, and an orator of Equality?" The prince laughed hysterically; he had several times burst into these little, short nervous laughs. "Oh, no — it is for you, for myself, and for all of us together, that I am alarmed. I am a prince of an old family myself, and I am sitting among my peers; and I am talking like this in the hope of saving us all; in the hope that our class will not disappear altogether — into the darkness — unguessing its danger — blaming everything around it, and losing ground every day. Why should we disappear and give place to others, when we may still, if we choose, remain in the front rank and lead the battle? Let us be servants, that we may become lords in due season!"
He tried to get upon his feet again, but the old man still restrained him, gazing at him with increasing perturbation as he went on.