"My dear Lebedeff, I — "
"Oh, nothing more, nothing more! I was saying to myself but now . . . 'I am quite unworthy of friendly relations with him,' say I; 'but perhaps as landlord of this house I may, at some future date, in his good time, receive information as to certain imminent and much to be desired changes — '"
So saying Lebedeff fixed the prince with his sharp little eyes, still in hope that he would get his curiosity satisfied.
The prince looked back at him in amazement.
"I don't understand what you are driving at!" he cried, almost angrily, "and, and — what an intriguer you are, Lebedeff!" he added, bursting into a fit of genuine laughter.
Lebedeff followed suit at once, and it was clear from his radiant face that he considered his prospects of satisfaction immensely improved.
"And do you know," the prince continued, "I am amazed at your naive ways, Lebedeff! Don't be angry with me — not only yours, everybody else's also! You are waiting to hear something from me at this very moment with such simplicity that I declare I feel quite ashamed of myself for having nothing whatever to tell you. I swear to you solemnly, that there is nothing to tell. There! Can you take that in?" The prince laughed again.
Lebedeff assumed an air of dignity. It was true enough that he was sometimes naive to a degree in his curiosity; but he was also an excessively cunning gentleman, and the prince was almost converting him into an enemy by his repeated rebuffs. The prince did not snub Lebedeff's curiosity, however, because he felt any contempt for him; but simply because the subject was too delicate to talk about. Only a few days before he had looked upon his own dreams almost as crimes. But Lebedeff considered the refusal as caused by personal dislike to himself, and was hurt accordingly. Indeed, there was at this moment a piece of news, most interesting to the prince, which Lebedeff knew and even had wished to tell him, but which he now kept obstinately to himself.
"And what can I do for you, esteemed prince? Since I am told you sent for me just now," he said, after a few moments' silence.
"Oh, it was about the general," began the prince, waking abruptly from the fit of musing which he too had indulged in "and-and about the theft you told me of."
"That is — er — about — what theft?"
"Oh come! just as if you didn't understand, Lukian Timofeyovitch! What are you up to? I can't make you out! The money, the money, sir! The four hundred roubles that you lost that day. You came and told me about it one morning, and then went off to Petersburg. There, NOW do you understand?"
"Oh — h — h! You mean the four hundred roubles!" said Lebedeff, dragging the words out, just as though it had only just dawned upon him what the prince was talking about. "Thanks very much, prince, for your kind interest — you do me too much honour. I found the money, long ago!"
"You found it? Thank God for that!"
"Your exclamation proves the generous sympathy of your nature, prince; for four hundred roubles — to a struggling family man like myself — is no small matter!"
"I didn't mean that; at least, of course, I'm glad for your sake, too," added the prince, correcting himself, "but — how did you find it?"
"Very simply indeed! I found it under the chair upon which my coat had hung; so that it is clear the purse simply fell out of the pocket and on to the floor!"
"Under the chair? Impossible! Why, you told me yourself that you had searched every corner of the room? How could you not have looked in the most likely place of all?"
"Of course I looked there, — of course I did! Very much so! I looked and scrambled about, and felt for it, and wouldn't believe it was not there, and looked again and again. It is always so in such cases. One longs and expects to find a lost article; one sees it is not there, and the place is as bare as one's palm; and yet one returns and looks again and again, fifteen or twenty times, likely enough!"
"Oh, quite so, of course. But how was it in your case? — I don't quite understand," said the bewildered prince. "You say it wasn't there at first, and that you searched the place thoroughly, and yet it turned up on that very spot!"
"Yes, sir — on that very spot." The prince gazed strangely at Lebedeff. "And the general?" he asked, abruptly.
"The — the general? How do you mean, the general?" said Lebedeff, dubiously, as though he had not taken in the drift of the prince's remark.
"Oh, good heavens! I mean, what did the general say when the purse turned up under the chair? You and he had searched for it together there, hadn't you?"
"Quite so — together! But the second time I thought better to say nothing about finding it. I found it alone."
"But — why in the world — and the money? Was it all there?"
"I opened the purse and counted it myself; right to a single rouble."
"I think you might have come and told me," said the prince, thoughtfully.
"Oh — I didn't like to disturb you, prince, in the midst of your private and doubtless most interesting personal reflections. Besides, I wanted to appear, myself, to have found nothing. I took the purse, and opened it, and counted the money, and shut it and put it down again under the chair."
"What in the world for?"
"Oh, just out of curiosity," said Lebedeff, rubbing his hands and sniggering.
"What, it's still there then, is it? Ever since the day before yesterday?"
"Oh no! You see, I was half in hopes the general might find it. Because if I found it, why should not he too observe an object lying before his very eyes? I moved the chair several times so as to expose the purse to view, but the general never saw it. He is very absent just now, evidently. He talks and laughs and tells stories, and suddenly flies into a rage with me, goodness knows why."
"Well, but — have you taken the purse away now?"
"No, it disappeared from under the chair in the night."
"Where is it now, then?"
"Here," laughed Lebedeff, at last, rising to his full height and looking pleasantly at the prince, "here, in the lining of my coat. Look, you can feel it for yourself, if you like!"
Sure enough there was something sticking out of the front of the coat — something large. It certainly felt as though it might well be the purse fallen through a hole in the pocket into the lining.
"I took it out and had a look at it; it's all right. I've let it slip back into the lining now, as you see, and so I have been walking about ever since yesterday morning; it knocks against my legs when I walk along."
"H'm! and you take no notice of it?"
"Quite so, I take no notice of it. Ha, ha! and think of this, prince, my pockets are always strong and whole, and yet, here in one night, is a huge hole. I know the phenomenon is unworthy of your notice; but such is the case. I examined the hole, and I declare it actually looks as though it had been made with a pen-knife, a most improbable contingency."
"And — and — the general?"