The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter IX.

Silence immediately fell on the room; all looked at the prince as though they neither understood, nor hoped to understand. Gania was motionless with horror.

Nastasia’s arrival was a most unexpected and overwhelming event to all parties. In the first place, she had never been before. Up to now she had been so haughty that she had never even asked Gania to introduce her to his parents. Of late she had not so much as mentioned them. Gania was partly glad of this; but still he had put it to her debit in the account to be settled after marriage.

He would have borne anything from her rather than this visit. But one thing seemed to him quite clear-her visit now, and the present of her portrait on this particular day, pointed out plainly enough which way she intended to make her decision!

The incredulous amazement with which all regarded the prince did not last long, for Nastasia herself appeared at the door and passed in, pushing by the prince again.

“At last I’ve stormed the citadel! Why do you tie up your bell?” she said, merrily, as she pressed Gania’s hand, the latter having rushed up to her as soon as she made her appearance. “What are you looking so upset about? Introduce me, please!”

The bewildered Gania introduced her first to Varia, and both women, before shaking hands, exchanged looks of strange import. Nastasia, however, smiled amiably; but Varia did not try to look amiable, and kept her gloomy expression. She did not even vouchsafe the usual courteous smile of etiquette. Gania darted a terrible glance of wrath at her for this, but Nina Alexandrovna, mended matters a little when Gania introduced her at last. Hardly, however, had the old lady begun about her “ highly gratified feelings,” and so on, when Nastasia left her, and flounced into a chair by Gania’s side in the corner by the window, and cried: “Where’s your study? and where are the — the lodgers? You do take in lodgers, don’t you?”

Gania looked dreadfully put out, and tried to say something in reply, but Nastasia interrupted him:

“Why, where are you going to squeeze lodgers in here? Don’t you use a study? Does this sort of thing pay?” she added, turning to Nina Alexandrovna.

“Well, it is troublesome, rather,” said the latter; “but I suppose it will ‘pay’ pretty well. We have only just begun, however —”

Again Nastasia Philipovna did not hear the sentence out. She glanced at Gania, and cried, laughing, “What a face! My goodness, what a face you have on at this moment!”

Indeed, Gania did not look in the least like himself. His bewilderment and his alarmed perplexity passed off, however, and his lips now twitched with rage as he continued to stare evilly at his laughing guest, while his countenance became absolutely livid.

There was another witness, who, though standing at the door motionless and bewildered himself, still managed to remark Gania’s death-like pallor, and the dreadful change that had come over his face. This witness was the prince, who now advanced in alarm and muttered to Gania:

“Drink some water, and don’t look like that!”

It was clear that he came out with these words quite spontaneously, on the spur of the moment. But his speech was productive of much — for it appeared that all. Gania’s rage now overflowed upon the prince. He seized him by the shoulder and gazed with an intensity of loathing and revenge at him, but said nothing — as though his feelings were too strong to permit of words.

General agitation prevailed. Nina Alexandrovna gave a little cry of anxiety; Ptitsin took a step forward in alarm; Colia and Ferdishenko stood stock still at the door in amazement; — only Varia remained coolly watching the scene from under her eyelashes. She did not sit down, but stood by her mother with folded hands. However, Gania recollected himself almost immediately. He let go of the prince and burst out laughing.

“Why, are you a doctor, prince, or what?” he asked, as naturally as possible. “I declare you quite frightened me! Nastasia Philipovna, let me introduce this interesting character to you — though I have only known him myself since the morning.”

Nastasia gazed at the prince in bewilderment. “Prince? He a Prince? Why, I took him for the footman, just now, and sent him in to announce me! Ha, ha, ha, isn’t that good!”

“Not bad that, not bad at all!” put in Ferdishenko, “se non e vero —”

“I rather think I pitched into you, too, didn’t I? Forgive me — do! Who is he, did you say? What prince? Muishkin?” she added, addressing Gania.

“He is a lodger of ours,” explained the latter.

“An idiot!”— the prince distinctly heard the word half whispered from behind him. This was Ferdishenko’s voluntary information for Nastasia’s benefit.

“Tell me, why didn’t you put me right when I made such a dreadful mistake just now?” continued the latter, examining the prince from head to foot without the slightest ceremony. She awaited the answer as though convinced that it would be so foolish that she must inevitably fail to restrain her laughter over it.

“I was astonished, seeing you so suddenly —” murmured the prince.

“How did you know who I was? Where had you seen me before? And why were you so struck dumb at the sight of me? What was there so overwhelming about me?”

“Oho! ho, ho, ho!” cried Ferdishenko. “NOW then, prince! My word, what things I would say if I had such a chance as that! My goodness, prince — go on!”

“So should I, in your place, I’ve no doubt!” laughed the prince to Ferdishenko; then continued, addressing Nastasia: “Your portrait struck me very forcibly this morning; then I was talking about you to the Epanchins; and then, in the train, before I reached Petersburg, Parfen Rogojin told me a good deal about you; and at the very moment that I opened the door to you I happened to be thinking of you, when — there you stood before me!”

“And how did you recognize me?”

“From the portrait!”

“What else?”

“I seemed to imagine you exactly as you are — I seemed to have seen you somewhere.”

“Where — where?”

“I seem to have seen your eyes somewhere; but it cannot be! I have not seen you — I never was here before. I may have dreamed of you, I don’t know.”

The prince said all this with manifest effort — in broken sentences, and with many drawings of breath. He was evidently much agitated. Nastasia Philipovna looked at him inquisitively, but did not laugh.

“Bravo, prince!” cried Ferdishenko, delighted.

At this moment a loud voice from behind the group which hedged in the prince and Nastasia Philipovna, divided the crowd, as it were, and before them stood the head of the family, General Ivolgin. He was dressed in evening clothes; his moustache was dyed.

This apparition was too much for Gania. Vain and ambitious almost to morbidness, he had had much to put up with in the last two months, and was seeking feverishly for some means of enabling himself to lead a more presentable kind of existence. At home, he now adopted an attitude of absolute cynicism, but he could not keep this up before Nastasia Philipovna, although he had sworn to make her pay after marriage for all he suffered now. He was experiencing a last humiliation, the bitterest of all, at this moment — the humiliation of blushing for his own kindred in his own house. A question flashed through his mind as to whether the game was really worth the candle.

For that had happened at this moment, which for two months had been his nightmare; which had filled his soul with dread and shame — the meeting between his father and Nastasia Philipovna. He had often tried to imagine such an event, but had found the picture too mortifying and exasperating, and had quietly dropped it. Very likely he anticipated far worse things than was at all necessary; it is often so with vain persons. He had long since determined, therefore, to get his father out of the way, anywhere, before his marriage, in order to avoid such a meeting; but when Nastasia entered the room just now, he had been so overwhelmed with astonishment, that he had not thought of his father, and had made no arrangements to keep him out of the way. And now it was too late — there he was, and got up, too, in a dress coat and white tie, and Nastasia in the very humour to heap ridicule on him and his family circle; of this last fact, he felt quite persuaded. What else had she come for? There were his mother and his sister sitting before her, and she seemed to have forgotten their very existence already; and if she behaved like that, he thought, she must have some object in view.

Ferdishenko led the general up to Nastasia Philipovna.

“Ardalion Alexandrovitch Ivolgin,” said the smiling general, with a low bow of great dignity, “an old soldier, unfortunate, and the father of this family; but happy in the hope of including in that family so exquisite —”

He did not finish his sentence, for at this moment Ferdishenko pushed a chair up from behind, and the general, not very firm on his legs, at this post-prandial hour, flopped into it backwards. It was always a difficult thing to put this warrior to confusion, and his sudden descent left him as composed as before. He had sat down just opposite to Nastasia, whose fingers he now took, and raised to his lips with great elegance, and much courtesy. The general had once belonged to a very select circle of society, but he had been turned out of it two or three years since on account of certain weaknesses, in which he now indulged with all the less restraint; but his good manners remained with him to this day, in spite of all.

Nastasia Philipovna seemed delighted at the appearance of this latest arrival, of whom she had of course heard a good deal by report.

“I have heard that my son —” began Ardalion Alexandrovitch.

“Your son, indeed! A nice papa you are! YOU might have come to see me anyhow, without compromising anyone. Do you hide yourself, or does your son hide you?”

“The children of the nineteenth century, and their parents —” began the general, again.

“Nastasia Philipovna, will you excuse the general for a moment? Someone is inquiring for him,” said Nina Alexandrovna in a loud voice, interrupting the conversation.

“Excuse him? Oh no, I have wished to see him too long for that. Why, what business can he have? He has retired, hasn’t he? You won’t leave me, general, will you?”

“I give you my word that he shall come and see you — but he — he needs rest just now.”

“General, they say you require rest,” said Nastasia Philipovna, with the melancholy face of a child whose toy is taken away.

Ardalion Alexandrovitch immediately did his best to make his foolish position a great deal worse.

“My dear, my dear!” he said, solemnly and reproachfully, looking at his wife, with one hand on his heart.

“Won’t you leave the room, mamma?” asked Varia, aloud.

“No, Varia, I shall sit it out to the end.”

Nastasia must have overheard both question and reply, but her vivacity was not in the least damped. On the contrary, it seemed to increase. She immediately overwhelmed the general once more with questions, and within five minutes that gentleman was as happy as a king, and holding forth at the top of his voice, amid the laughter of almost all who heard him.

Colia jogged the prince’s arm.

“Can’t YOU get him out of the room, somehow? DO, please,” and tears of annoyance stood in the boy’s eyes. “Curse that Gania!” he muttered, between his teeth.

“Oh yes, I knew General Epanchin well,” General Ivolgin was saying at this moment; “he and Prince Nicolai Ivanovitch Muishkin — whose son I have this day embraced after an absence of twenty years — and I, were three inseparables. Alas one is in the grave, torn to pieces by calumnies and bullets; another is now before you, still battling with calumnies and bullets —”

“Bullets?” cried Nastasia.

“Yes, here in my chest. I received them at the siege of Kars, and I feel them in bad weather now. And as to the third of our trio, Epanchin, of course after that little affair with the poodle in the railway carriage, it was all UP between us.”

“Poodle? What was that? And in a railway carriage? Dear me,” said Nastasia, thoughtfully, as though trying to recall something to mind.

“Oh, just a silly, little occurrence, really not worth telling, about Princess Bielokonski’s governess, Miss Smith, and — oh, it is really not worth telling!”

“No, no, we must have it!” cried Nastasia merrily.

“Yes, of course,” said Ferdishenko. “C’est du nouveau.”

“Ardalion,” said Nina Alexandrovitch, entreatingly.

“Papa, you are wanted!” cried Colia.

“Well, it is a silly little story, in a few words,” began the delighted general. “A couple of years ago, soon after the new railway was opened, I had to go somewhere or other on business. Well, I took a first-class ticket, sat down, and began to smoke, or rather CONTINUED to smoke, for I had lighted up before. I was alone in the carriage. Smoking is not allowed, but is not prohibited either; it is half allowed — so to speak, winked at. I had the window open.”

“Suddenly, just before the whistle, in came two ladies with a little poodle, and sat down opposite to me; not bad-looking women; one was in light blue, the other in black silk. The poodle, a beauty with a silver collar, lay on light blue’s knee. They looked haughtily about, and talked English together. I took no notice, just went on smoking. I observed that the ladies were getting angry — over my cigar, doubtless. One looked at me through her tortoise-shell eyeglass.

“I took no notice, because they never said a word. If they didn’t like the cigar, why couldn’t they say so? Not a word, not a hint! Suddenly, and without the very slightest suspicion of warning, ‘light blue’ seizes my cigar from between my fingers, and, wheugh! out of the window with it! Well, on flew the train, and I sat bewildered, and the young woman, tall and fair, and rather red in the face, too red, glared at me with flashing eyes.

“I didn’t say a word, but with extreme courtesy, I may say with most refined courtesy, I reached my finger and thumb over towards the poodle, took it up delicately by the nape of the neck, and chucked it out of the window, after the cigar. The train went flying on, and the poodle’s yells were lost in the distance.”

“Oh, you naughty man!” cried Nastasia, laughing and clapping her hands like a child.

“Bravo!” said Ferdishenko. Ptitsin laughed too, though he had been very sorry to see the general appear. Even Colia laughed and said, “Bravo!”

“And I was right, truly right,” cried the general, with warmth and solemnity, “for if cigars are forbidden in railway carriages, poodles are much more so.”

“Well, and what did the lady do?” asked Nastasia, impatiently.

“ She — ah, that’s where all the mischief of it lies!” replied Ivolgin, frowning. “Without a word, as it were, of warning, she slapped me on the cheek! An extraordinary woman!”

“And you?”

The general dropped his eyes, and elevated his brows; shrugged his shoulders, tightened his lips, spread his hands, and remained silent. At last he blurted out:

“I lost my head!”

“Did you hit her?”

“No, oh no! — there was a great flare-up, but I didn’t hit her! I had to struggle a little, purely to defend myself; but the very devil was in the business. It turned out that ‘light blue’ was an Englishwoman, governess or something, at Princess Bielokonski’s, and the other woman was one of the old-maid princesses Bielokonski. Well, everybody knows what great friends the princess and Mrs. Epanchin are, so there was a pretty kettle of fish. All the Bielokonskis went into mourning for the poodle. Six princesses in tears, and the Englishwoman shrieking!

“Of course I wrote an apology, and called, but they would not receive either me or my apology, and the Epanchins cut me, too!”

“But wait,” said Nastasia. “How is it that, five or six days since, I read exactly the same story in the paper, as happening between a Frenchman and an English girl? The cigar was snatched away exactly as you describe, and the poodle was chucked out of the window after it. The slapping came off, too, as in your case; and the girl’s dress was light blue!”

The general blushed dreadfully; Colia blushed too; and Ptitsin turned hastily away. Ferdishenko was the only one who laughed as gaily as before. As to Gania, I need not say that he was miserable; he stood dumb and wretched and took no notice of anybody.

“I assure you,” said the general, “that exactly the same thing happened to myself!”

“I remembered there was some quarrel between father and Miss Smith, the Bielokonski’s governess,” said Colia.

“How very curious, point for point the same anecdote, and happening at different ends of Europe! Even the light blue dress the same,” continued the pitiless Nastasia. “I must really send you the paper.”

“You must observe,” insisted the general, “that my experience was two years earlier.”

“Ah! that’s it, no doubt!”

Nastasia Philipovna laughed hysterically.

“Father, will you hear a word from me outside!” said Gania, his voice shaking with agitation, as he seized his father by the shoulder. His eyes shone with a blaze of hatred.

At this moment there was a terrific bang at the front door, almost enough to break it down. Some most unusual visitor must have arrived. Colia ran to open.

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