"Ah, very angry all day, sir; all yesterday and all today. He shows decided bacchanalian predilections at one time, and at another is tearful and sensitive, but at any moment he is liable to paroxysms of such rage that I assure you, prince, I am quite alarmed. I am not a military man, you know. Yesterday we were sitting together in the tavern, and the lining of my coat was — quite accidentally, of course — sticking out right in front. The general squinted at it, and flew into a rage. He never looks me quite in the face now, unless he is very drunk or maudlin; but yesterday he looked at me in such a way that a shiver went all down my back. I intend to find the purse tomorrow; but till then I am going to have another night of it with him."
"What's the good of tormenting him like this?" cried the prince.
"I don't torment him, prince, I don't indeed!" cried Lebedeff, hotly. "I love him, my dear sir, I esteem him; and believe it or not, I love him all the better for this business, yes — and value him more."
Lebedeff said this so seriously that the prince quite lost his temper with him.
"Nonsense! love him and torment him so! Why, by the very fact that he put the purse prominently before you, first under the chair and then in your lining, he shows that he does not wish to deceive you, but is anxious to beg your forgiveness in this artless way. Do you hear? He is asking your pardon. He confides in the delicacy of your feelings, and in your friendship for him. And you can allow yourself to humiliate so thoroughly honest a man!"
"Thoroughly honest, quite so, prince, thoroughly honest!" said Lebedeff, with flashing eyes. "And only you, prince, could have found so very appropriate an expression. I honour you for it, prince. Very well, that's settled; I shall find the purse now and not tomorrow. Here, I find it and take it out before your eyes! And the money is all right. Take it, prince, and keep it till tomorrow, will you? Tomorrow or next day I'll take it back again. I think, prince, that the night after its disappearance it was buried under a bush in the garden. So I believe — what do you think of that?"
"Well, take care you don't tell him to his face that you have found the purse. Simply let him see that it is no longer in the lining of your coat, and form his own conclusions."
"Do you think so? Had I not just better tell him I have found it, and pretend I never guessed where it was?"
"No, I don't think so," said the prince, thoughtfully; "it's too late for that — that would be dangerous now. No, no! Better say nothing about it. Be nice with him, you know, but don't show him — oh, YOU know well enough — "
"I know, prince, of course I know, but I'm afraid I shall not carry it out; for to do so one needs a heart like your own. He is so very irritable just now, and so proud. At one moment he will embrace me, and the next he flies out at me and sneers at me, and then I stick the lining forward on purpose. Well, au revoir, prince, I see I am keeping you, and boring you, too, interfering with your most interesting private reflections."
"Now, do be careful! Secrecy, as before!"
"Oh, silence isn't the word! Softly, softly!"
But in spite of this conclusion to the episode, the prince remained as puzzled as ever, if not more so. He awaited next morning's interview with the general most impatiently.
THE time appointed was twelve o'clock, and the prince, returning home unexpectedly late, found the general waiting for him. At the first glance, he saw that the latter was displeased, perhaps because he had been kept waiting. The prince apologized, and quickly took a seat. He seemed strangely timid before the general this morning, for some reason, and felt as though his visitor were some piece of china which he was afraid of breaking.
On scrutinizing him, the prince soon saw that the general was quite a different man from what he had been the day before; he looked like one who had come to some momentous resolve. His calmness, however, was more apparent than real. He was courteous, but there was a suggestion of injured innocence in his manner.
"I've brought your book back," he began, indicating a book lying on the table. "Much obliged to you for lending it to me."
"Ah, yes. Well, did you read it, general? It's curious, isn't it?" said the prince, delighted to be able to open up conversation upon an outside subject.
"Curious enough, yes, but crude, and of course dreadful nonsense; probably the man lies in every other sentence."
The general spoke with considerable confidence, and dragged his words out with a conceited drawl.
"Oh, but it's only the simple tale of an old soldier who saw the French enter Moscow. Some of his remarks were wonderfully interesting. Remarks of an eye-witness are always valuable, whoever he be, don't you think so?"
"Had I been the publisher I should not have printed it. As to the evidence of eye-witnesses, in these days people prefer impudent lies to the stories of men of worth and long service. I know of some notes of the year 1812, which — I have determined, prince, to leave this house, Mr. Lebedeff's house."
The general looked significantly at his host.
"Of course you have your own lodging at Pavlofsk at — at your daughter's house," began the prince, quite at a loss what to say. He suddenly recollected that the general had come for advice on a most important matter, affecting his destiny.
"At my wife's; in other words, at my own place, my daughter's house."
"I beg your pardon, I — "
"I leave Lebedeff's house, my dear prince, because I have quarrelled with this person. I broke with him last night, and am very sorry that I did not do so before. I expect respect, prince, even from those to whom I give my heart, so to speak. Prince, I have often given away my heart, and am nearly always deceived. This person was quite unworthy of the gift."
"There is much that might be improved in him," said the prince, moderately, "but he has some qualities which — though amid them one cannot but discern a cunning nature — reveal what is often a diverting intellect."
The prince's tone was so natural and respectful that the general could not possibly suspect him of any insincerity.
"Oh, that he possesses good traits, I was the first to show, when I very nearly made him a present of my friendship. I am not dependent upon his hospitality, and upon his house; I have my own family. I do not attempt to justify my own weakness. I have drunk with this man, and perhaps I deplore the fact now, but I did not take him up for the sake of drink alone (excuse the crudeness of the expression, prince); I did not make friends with him for that alone. I was attracted by his good qualities; but when the fellow declares that he was a child in 1812, and had his left leg cut off, and buried in the Vagarkoff cemetery, in Moscow, such a cock-and-bull story amounts to disrespect, my dear sir, to — to impudent exaggeration."
"Oh, he was very likely joking; he said it for fun."
"I quite understand you. You mean that an innocent lie for the sake of a good joke is harmless, and does not offend the human heart. Some people lie, if you like to put it so, out of pure friendship, in order to amuse their fellows; but when a man makes use of extravagance in order to show his disrespect and to make clear how the intimacy bores him, it is time for a man of honour to break off the said intimacy., and to teach the offender his place."
The general flushed with indignation as he spoke.
"Oh, but Lebedeff cannot have been in Moscow in 1812. He is much too young; it is all nonsense."
"Very well, but even if we admit that he was alive in 1812, can one believe that a French chasseur pointed a cannon at him for a lark, and shot his left leg off? He says he picked his own leg up and took it away and buried it in the cemetery. He swore he had a stone put up over it with the inscription: 'Here lies the leg of Collegiate Secretary Lebedeff,' and on the other side, 'Rest, beloved ashes, till the morn of joy,' and that he has a service read over it every year (which is simply sacrilege), and goes to Moscow once a year on purpose. He invites me to Moscow in order to prove his assertion, and show me his leg's tomb, and the very cannon that shot him; he says it's the eleventh from the gate of the Kremlin, an old-fashioned falconet taken from the French afterwards."
"And, meanwhile both his legs are still on his body," said the prince, laughing. "I assure you, it is only an innocent joke, and you need not be angry about it."
"Excuse me — wait a minute — he says that the leg we see is a wooden one, made by Tchernosvitoff."