All these days Colia had been in a state of great mental preoccupation. Muishkin was usually out all day, and only came home late at night. On his return he was invariably informed that Colia had been looking for him. However, when they did meet, Colia never had anything particular to tell him, excepting that he was highly dissatisfied with the general and his present condition of mind and behaviour.
"They drag each other about the place," he said, "and get drunk together at the pub close by here, and quarrel in the street on the way home, and embrace one another after it, and don't seem to part for a moment."
When the prince pointed out that there was nothing new about that, for that they had always behaved in this manner together, Colia did not know what to say; in fact he could not explain what it was that specially worried him, just now, about his father.
On the morning following the bacchanalian songs and quarrels recorded above, as the prince stepped out of the house at about eleven o'clock, the general suddenly appeared before him, much agitated.
"I have long sought the honour and opportunity of meeting you — much-esteemed Lef Nicolaievitch," he murmured, pressing the prince's hand very hard, almost painfully so; "long — very long."
The prince begged him to step in and sit down.
"No — I will not sit down, — I am keeping you, I see, — another time! — I think I may be permitted to congratulate you upon the realization of your heart's best wishes, is it not so?"
"What best wishes?"
The prince blushed. He thought, as so many in his position do, that nobody had seen, heard, noticed, or understood anything.
"Oh — be easy, sir, be easy! I shall not wound your tenderest feelings. I've been through it all myself, and I know well how unpleasant it is when an outsider sticks his nose in where he is not wanted. I experience this every morning. I came to speak to you about another matter, though, an important matter. A very important matter, prince."
The latter requested him to take a seat once more, and sat down himself.
"Well — just for one second, then. The fact is, I came for advice. Of course I live now without any very practical objects in life; but, being full of self-respect, in which quality the ordinary Russian is so deficient as a rule, and of activity, I am desirous, in a word, prince, of placing myself and my wife and children in a position of — in fact, I want advice."
The prince commended his aspirations with warmth.
"Quite so — quite so! But this is all mere nonsense. I came here to speak of something quite different, something very important, prince. And I have determined to come to you as to a man in whose sincerity and nobility of feeling I can trust like — like — are you surprised at my words, prince?"
The prince was watching his guest, if not with much surprise, at all events with great attention and curiosity.
The old man was very pale; every now and then his lips trembled, and his hands seemed unable to rest quietly, but continually moved from place to place. He had twice already jumped up from his chair and sat down again without being in the least aware of it. He would take up a hook from the table and open it — talking all the while, — look at the heading of a chapter, shut it and put it back again, seizing another immediately, but holding it unopened in his hand, and waving it in the air as he spoke.
"But enough!" he cried, suddenly. "I see I have been boring you with my — "
"Not in the least — not in the least, I assure you. On the contrary, I am listening most attentively, and am anxious to guess-"
"Prince, I wish to place myself in a respectable position — I wish to esteem myself — and to — "
"My dear sir, a man of such noble aspirations is worthy of all esteem by virtue of those aspirations alone."
The prince brought out his "copy-book sentence" in the firm belief that it would produce a good effect. He felt instinctively that some such well-sounding humbug, brought out at the proper moment, would soothe the old man's feelings, and would be specially acceptable to such a man in such a position. At all hazards, his guest must be despatched with heart relieved and spirit comforted; that was the problem before the prince at this moment.
The phrase flattered the general, touched him, and pleased him mightily. He immediately changed his tone, and started off on a long and solemn explanation. But listen as he would, the prince could make neither head nor tail of it.
The general spoke hotly and quickly for ten minutes; he spoke as though his words could not keep pace with his crowding thoughts. Tears stood in his eyes, and yet his speech was nothing but a collection of disconnected sentences, without beginning and without end — a string of unexpected words and unexpected sentiments — colliding with one another, and jumping over one another, as they burst from his lips.
"Enough!" he concluded at last, "you understand me, and that is the great thing. A heart like yours cannot help understanding the sufferings of another. Prince, you are the ideal of generosity; what are other men beside yourself? But you are young — accept my blessing! My principal object is to beg you to fix an hour for a most important conversation — that is my great hope, prince. My heart needs but a little friendship and sympathy, and yet I cannot always find means to satisfy it."
"But why not now? I am ready to listen, and — "
"No, no — prince, not now! Now is a dream! And it is too, too important! It is to be the hour of Fate to me — MY OWN hour. Our interview is not to be broken in upon by every chance comer, every impertinent guest — and there are plenty of such stupid, impertinent fellows" — (he bent over and whispered mysteriously, with a funny, frightened look on his face) — "who are unworthy to tie your shoe, prince. I don't say MINE, mind — you will understand me, prince. Only YOU understand me, prince — no one else. HE doesn't understand me, he is absolutely — ABSOLUTELY unable to sympathize. The first qualification for understanding another is Heart."
The prince was rather alarmed at all this, and was obliged to end by appointing the same hour of the following day for the interview desired. The general left him much comforted and far less agitated than when he had arrived.
At seven in the evening, the prince sent to request Lebedeff to pay him a visit. Lebedeff came at once, and "esteemed it an honour," as he observed, the instant he entered the room. He acted as though there had never been the slightest suspicion of the fact that he had systematically avoided the prince for the last three days.
He sat down on the edge of his chair, smiling and making faces, and rubbing his hands, and looking as though he were in delighted expectation of hearing some important communication, which had been long guessed by all.
The prince was instantly covered with confusion; for it appeared to be plain that everyone expected something of him — that everyone looked at him as though anxious to congratulate him, and greeted him with hints, and smiles, and knowing looks.
Keller, for instance, had run into the house three times of late, "just for a moment," and each time with the air of desiring to offer his congratulations. Colia, too, in spite of his melancholy, had once or twice begun sentences in much the same strain of suggestion or insinuation.
The prince, however, immediately began, with some show of annoyance, to question Lebedeff categorically, as to the general's present condition, and his opinion thereon. He described the morning's interview in a few words.
"Everyone has his worries, prince, especially in these strange and troublous times of ours," Lebedeff replied, drily, and with the air of a man disappointed of his reasonable expectations.
"Dear me, what a philosopher you are!" laughed the prince.
"Philosophy is necessary, sir — very necessary — in our day. It is too much neglected. As for me, much esteemed prince, I am sensible of having experienced the honour of your confidence in a certain matter up to a certain point, but never beyond that point. I do not for a moment complain — "
"Lebedeff, you seem to be angry for some reason!" said the prince.
"Not the least bit in the world, esteemed and revered prince! Not the least bit in the world!" cried Lebedeff, solemnly, with his hand upon his heart. "On the contrary, I am too painfully aware that neither by my position in the world, nor by my gifts of intellect and heart, nor by my riches, nor by any former conduct of mine, have I in any way deserved your confidence, which is far above my highest aspirations and hopes. Oh no, prince; I may serve you, but only as your humble slave! I am not angry, oh no! Not angry; pained perhaps, but nothing more.