The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter VII.

THE young fellow accompanying the general was about twenty-eight, tall, and well built, with a handsome and clever face, and bright black eyes, full of fun and intelligence.

Aglaya did not so much as glance at the new arrivals, but went on with her recitation, gazing at the prince the while in an affected manner, and at him alone. It was clear to him that she was doing all this with some special object.

But the new guests at least somewhat eased his strained and uncomfortable position. Seeing them approaching, he rose from his chair, and nodding amicably to the general, signed to him not to interrupt the recitation. He then got behind his chair, and stood there with his left hand resting on the back of it. Thanks to this change of position, he was able to listen to the ballad with far less embarrassment than before. Mrs. Epanchin had also twice motioned to the new arrivals to be quiet, and stay where they were.

The prince was much interested in the young man who had just entered. He easily concluded that this was Evgenie Pavlovitch Radomski, of whom he had already heard mention several times. He was puzzled, however, by the young man’s plain clothes, for he had always heard of Evgenie Pavlovitch as a military man. An ironical smile played on Evgenie’s lips all the while the recitation was proceeding, which showed that he, too, was probably in the secret of the ‘poor knight’ joke. But it had become quite a different matter with Aglaya. All the affectation of manner which she had displayed at the beginning disappeared as the ballad proceeded. She spoke the lines in so serious and exalted a manner, and with so much taste, that she even seemed to justify the exaggerated solemnity with which she had stepped forward. It was impossible to discern in her now anything but a deep feeling for the spirit of the poem which she had undertaken to interpret.

Her eyes were aglow with inspiration, and a slight tremor of rapture passed over her lovely features once or twice. She continued to recite:

“Once there came a vision glorious,
Mystic, dreadful, wondrous fair;
Burned itself into his spirit,
And abode for ever there!

“Never more — from that sweet moment —
Gazed he on womankind;
He was dumb to love and wooing
And to all their graces blind.

“Full of love for that sweet vision,
Brave and pure he took the field;
With his blood he stained the letters
N. P. B. upon his shield.

“‘Lumen caeli, sancta Rosa!’
Shouting on the foe he fell,
And like thunder rang his war-cry
O’er the cowering infidel.

“Then within his distant castle,
Home returned, he dreamed his days —
Silent, sad — and when death took him
He was mad, the legend says.”

When recalling all this afterwards the prince could not for the life of him understand how to reconcile the beautiful, sincere, pure nature of the girl with the irony of this jest. That it was a jest there was no doubt whatever; he knew that well enough, and had good reason, too, for his conviction; for during her recitation of the ballad Aglaya had deliberately changed the letters A. N. B. into N. P. B. He was quite sure she had not done this by accident, and that his ears had not deceived him. At all events her performance — which was a joke, of course, if rather a crude one — was premeditated. They had evidently talked (and laughed) over the ‘poor knight’ for more than a month.

Yet Aglaya had brought out these letters N. P. B. not only without the slightest appearance of irony, or even any particular accentuation, but with so even and unbroken an appearance of seriousness that assuredly anyone might have supposed that these initials were the original ones written in the ballad. The thing made an uncomfortable impression upon the prince. Of course Mrs. Epanchin saw nothing either in the change of initials or in the insinuation embodied therein. General Epanchin only knew that there was a recitation of verses going on, and took no further interest in the matter. Of the rest of the audience, many had understood the allusion and wondered both at the daring of the lady and at the motive underlying it, but tried to show no sign of their feelings. But Evgenie Pavlovitch (as the prince was ready to wager) both comprehended and tried his best to show that he comprehended; his smile was too mocking to leave any doubt on that point.

“How beautiful that is!” cried Mrs. Epanchin, with sincere admiration. “Whose is it? ’

“Pushkin’s, mama, of course! Don’t disgrace us all by showing your ignorance,” said Adelaida.

“As soon as we reach home give it to me to read.”

“I don’t think we have a copy of Pushkin in the house.”

“There are a couple of torn volumes somewhere; they have been lying about from time immemorial,” added Alexandra.

“Send Feodor or Alexey up by the very first train to buy a copy, then. — Aglaya, come here — kiss me, dear, you recited beautifully! but,” she added in a whisper, “if you were sincere I am sorry for you. If it was a joke, I do not approve of the feelings which prompted you to do it, and in any case you would have done far better not to recite it at all. Do you understand? — Now come along, young woman; we’ve sat here too long. I’ll speak to you about this another time.”

Meanwhile the prince took the opportunity of greeting General Epanchin, and the general introduced Evgenie Pavlovitch to him.

“I caught him up on the way to your house,” explained the general. “He had heard that we were all here.”

“Yes, and I heard that you were here, too,” added Evgenie Pavlovitch; “and since I had long promised myself the pleasure of seeking not only your acquaintance but your friendship, I did not wish to waste time, but came straight on. I am sorry to hear that you are unwell.”

“Oh, but I’m quite well now, thank you, and very glad to make your acquaintance. Prince S. has often spoken to me about you,” said Muishkin, and for an instant the two men looked intently into one another’s eyes.

The prince remarked that Evgenie Pavlovitch’s plain clothes had evidently made a great impression upon the company present, so much so that all other interests seemed to be effaced before this surprising fact.

His change of dress was evidently a matter of some importance. Adelaida and Alexandra poured out a stream of questions; Prince S., a relative of the young man, appeared annoyed; and Ivan Fedorovitch quite excited. Aglaya alone was not interested. She merely looked closely at Evgenie for a minute, curious perhaps as to whether civil or military clothes became him best, then turned away and paid no more attention to him or his costume. Lizabetha Prokofievna asked no questions, but it was clear that she was uneasy, and the prince fancied that Evgenie was not in her good graces.

“He has astonished me,” said Ivan Fedorovitch. “I nearly fell down with surprise. I could hardly believe my eyes when I met him in Petersburg just now. Why this haste? That’s what I want to know. He has always said himself that there is no need to break windows.”

Evgenie Pavlovitch remarked here that he had spoken of his intention of leaving the service long ago. He had, however, always made more or less of a joke about it, so no one had taken him seriously. For that matter he joked about everything, and his friends never knew what to believe, especially if he did not wish them to understand him.

“I have only retired for a time,” said he, laughing. “For a few months; at most for a year.”

“But there is no necessity for you to retire at all,” complained the general, “as far as I know.”

“I want to go and look after my country estates. You advised me to do that yourself,” was the reply. “And then I wish to go abroad.”

After a few more expostulations, the conversation drifted into other channels, but the prince, who had been an attentive listener, thought all this excitement about so small a matter very curious. “There must be more in it than appears,” he said to himself.

“I see the ‘poor knight’ has come on the scene again,” said Evgenie Pavlovitch, stepping to Aglaya’s side.

To the amazement of the prince, who overheard the remark, Aglaya looked haughtily and inquiringly at the questioner, as though she would give him to know, once for all, that there could be no talk between them about the ‘poor knight,’ and that she did not understand his question.

“But not now! It is too late to send to town for a Pushkin now. It is much too late, I say!” Colia was exclaiming in a loud voice. “I have told you so at least a hundred times.”

“Yes, it is really much too late to send to town now,” said Evgenie Pavlovitch, who had escaped from Aglaya as rapidly as possible. “I am sure the shops are shut in Petersburg; it is past eight o’clock,” he added, looking at his watch.

“We have done without him so far,” interrupted Adelaida in her turn. “Surely we can wait until to-morrow.”

“Besides,” said Colia, “it is quite unusual, almost improper, for people in our position to take any interest in literature. Ask Evgenie Pavlovitch if I am not right. It is much more fashionable to drive a waggonette with red wheels.”

“You got that from some magazine, Colia,” remarked Adelaida.

“He gets most of his conversation in that way,” laughed Evgenie Pavlovitch. “He borrows whole phrases from the reviews. I have long had the pleasure of knowing both Nicholai Ardalionovitch and his conversational methods, but this time he was not repeating something he had read; he was alluding, no doubt, to my yellow waggonette, which has, or had, red wheels. But I have exchanged it, so you are rather behind the times, Colia.”

The prince had been listening attentively to Radomski’s words, and thought his manner very pleasant. When Colia chaffed him about his waggonette he had replied with perfect equality and in a friendly fashion. This pleased Muishkin.

At this moment Vera came up to Lizabetha Prokofievna, carrying several large and beautifully bound books, apparently quite new.

“What is it?” demanded the lady.

“This is Pushkin,” replied the girl. “Papa told me to offer it to you.”

“What? Impossible!” exclaimed Mrs. Epanchin.

“Not as a present, not as a present! I should not have taken the liberty,” said Lebedeff, appearing suddenly from behind his daughter. “It is our own Pushkin, our family copy, Annenkoff’s edition; it could not be bought now. I beg to suggest, with great respect, that your excellency should buy it, and thus quench the noble literary thirst which is consuming you at this moment,” he concluded grandiloquently.

“Oh! if you will sell it, very good — and thank you. You shall not be a loser! But for goodness’ sake, don’t twist about like that, sir! I have heard of you; they tell me you are a very learned person. We must have a talk one of these days. You will bring me the books yourself?”

“With the greatest respect . . . and . . . and veneration,” replied Lebedeff, making extraordinary grimaces.

“Well, bring them, with or without respect, provided always you do not drop them on the way; but on the condition,” went on the lady, looking full at him, “that you do not cross my threshold. I do not intend to receive you today. You may send your daughter Vera at once, if you like. I am much pleased with her.”

“Why don’t you tell him about them?” said Vera impatiently to her father. “They will come in, whether you announce them or not, and they are beginning to make a row. Lef Nicolaievitch,”— she addressed herself to the prince —“four men are here asking for you. They have waited some time, and are beginning to make a fuss, and papa will not bring them in.”

“Who are these people?” said the prince.

“They say that they have come on business, and they are the kind of men, who, if you do not see them here, will follow you about the street. It would be better to receive them, and then you will get rid of them. Gavrila Ardalionovitch and Ptitsin are both there, trying to make them hear reason.”

“Pavlicheff’s son! It is not worth while!” cried Lebedeff. “There is no necessity to see them, and it would be most unpleasant for your excellency. They do not deserve . . . ”

“What? Pavlicheff’s son!” cried the prince, much perturbed. “I know . . . I know — but I entrusted this matter to Gavrila Ardalionovitch. He told me . . . ”

At that moment Gania, accompanied by Ptitsin, came out to the terrace. From an adjoining room came a noise of angry voices, and General Ivolgin, in loud tones, seemed to be trying to shout them down. Colia rushed off at once to investigate the cause of the uproar.

“This is most interesting!” observed Evgenie Pavlovitch.

“I expect he knows all about it!” thought the prince.

“What, the son of Pavlicheff? And who may this son of Pavlicheff be?” asked General Epanchin with surprise; and looking curiously around him, he discovered that he alone had no clue to the mystery. Expectation and suspense were on every face, with the exception of that of the prince, who stood gravely wondering how an affair so entirely personal could have awakened such lively and widespread interest in so short a time.

Aglaya went up to him with a peculiarly serious look

“It will be well,” she said, “if you put an end to this affair yourself AT ONCE: but you must allow us to be your witnesses. They want to throw mud at you, prince, and you must be triumphantly vindicated. I give you joy beforehand!”

“And I also wish for justice to be done, once for all,” cried Madame Epanchin, “about this impudent claim. Deal with them promptly, prince, and don’t spare them! I am sick of hearing about the affair, and many a quarrel I have had in your cause. But I confess I am anxious to see what happens, so do make them come out here, and we will remain. You have heard people talking about it, no doubt?” she added, turning to Prince S.

“Of course,” said he. “I have heard it spoken about at your house, and I am anxious to see these young men!”

“They are Nihilists, are they not?”

“No, they are not Nihilists,” explained Lebedeff, who seemed much excited. “This is another lot — a special group. According to my nephew they are more advanced even than the Nihilists. You are quite wrong, excellency, if you think that your presence will intimidate them; nothing intimidates them. Educated men, learned men even, are to be found among Nihilists; these go further, in that they are men of action. The movement is, properly speaking, a derivative from Nihilism — though they are only known indirectly, and by hearsay, for they never advertise their doings in the papers. They go straight to the point. For them, it is not a question of showing that Pushkin is stupid, or that Russia must be torn in pieces. No; but if they have a great desire for anything, they believe they have a right to get it even at the cost of the lives, say, of eight persons. They are checked by no obstacles. In fact, prince, I should not advise you . . . ”

But Muishkin had risen, and was on his way to open the door for his visitors.

“You are slandering them, Lebedeff,” said he, smiling.

“You are always thinking about your nephew’s conduct. Don’t believe him, Lizabetha Prokofievna. I can assure you Gorsky and Daniloff are exceptions — and that these are only . . . mistaken. However, I do not care about receiving them here, in public. Excuse me, Lizabetha Prokofievna. They are coming, and you can see them, and then I will take them away. Please come in, gentlemen!”

Another thought tormented him: He wondered was this an arranged business — arranged to happen when he had guests in his house, and in anticipation of his humiliation rather than of his triumph? But he reproached himself bitterly for such a thought, and felt as if he should die of shame if it were discovered. When his new visitors appeared, he was quite ready to believe himself infinitely less to be respected than any of them.

Four persons entered, led by General Ivolgin, in a state of great excitement, and talking eloquently.

“He is for me, undoubtedly!” thought the prince, with a smile. Colia also had joined the party, and was talking with animation to Hippolyte, who listened with a jeering smile on his lips.

The prince begged the visitors to sit down. They were all so young that it made the proceedings seem even more extraordinary. Ivan Fedorovitch, who really understood nothing of what was going on, felt indignant at the sight of these youths, and would have interfered in some way had it not been for the extreme interest shown by his wife in the affair. He therefore remained, partly through curiosity, partly through good-nature, hoping that his presence might be of some use. But the bow with which General Ivolgin greeted him irritated him anew; he frowned, and decided to be absolutely silent.

As to the rest, one was a man of thirty, the retired officer, now a boxer, who had been with Rogojin, and in his happier days had given fifteen roubles at a time to beggars. Evidently he had joined the others as a comrade to give them moral, and if necessary material, support. The man who had been spoken of as “Pavlicheff’s son,” although he gave the name of Antip Burdovsky, was about twenty-two years of age, fair, thin and rather tall. He was remarkable for the poverty, not to say uncleanliness, of his personal appearance: the sleeves of his overcoat were greasy; his dirty waistcoat, buttoned up to his neck, showed not a trace of linen; a filthy black silk scarf, twisted till it resembled a cord, was round his neck, and his hands were unwashed. He looked round with an air of insolent effrontery. His face, covered with pimples, was neither thoughtful nor even contemptuous; it wore an expression of complacent satisfaction in demanding his rights and in being an aggrieved party. His voice trembled, and he spoke so fast, and with such stammerings, that he might have been taken for a foreigner, though the purest Russian blood ran in his veins. Lebedeff’s nephew, whom the reader has seen already, accompanied him, and also the youth named Hippolyte Terentieff. The latter was only seventeen or eighteen. He had an intelligent face, though it was usually irritated and fretful in expression. His skeleton-like figure, his ghastly complexion, the brightness of his eyes, and the red spots of colour on his cheeks, betrayed the victim of consumption to the most casual glance. He coughed persistently, and panted for breath; it looked as though he had but a few weeks more to live. He was nearly dead with fatigue, and fell, rather than sat, into a chair. The rest bowed as they came in; and being more or less abashed, put on an air of extreme self-assurance. In short, their attitude was not that which one would have expected in men who professed to despise all trivialities, all foolish mundane conventions, and indeed everything, except their own personal interests.

“Antip Burdovsky,” stuttered the son of Pavlicheff.

“Vladimir Doktorenko,” said Lebedeff’s nephew briskly, and with a certain pride, as if he boasted of his name.

“Keller,” murmured the retired officer.

“Hippolyte Terentieff,” cried the last-named, in a shrill voice.

They sat now in a row facing the prince, and frowned, and played with their caps. All appeared ready to speak, and yet all were silent; the defiant expression on their faces seemed to say, “No, sir, you don’t take us in!” It could be felt that the first word spoken by anyone present would bring a torrent of speech from the whole deputation.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:49