Katia, the maid-servant, made her appearance, terribly frightened.
“Goodness knows what it means, ma’am,” she said. “There is a whole collection of men come—all tipsy—and want to see you. They say that ‘it’s Rogojin, and she knows all about it.’”
“It’s all right, Katia, let them all in at once.”
“Surely not ALL, ma’am? They seem so disorderly—it’s dreadful to see them.”
“Yes ALL, Katia, all—every one of them. Let them in, or they’ll come in whether you like or no. Listen! what a noise they are making! Perhaps you are offended, gentlemen, that I should receive such guests in your presence? I am very sorry, and ask your forgiveness, but it cannot be helped—and I should be very grateful if you could all stay and witness this climax. However, just as you please, of course.”
The guests exchanged glances; they were annoyed and bewildered by the episode; but it was clear enough that all this had been pre-arranged and expected by Nastasia Philipovna, and that there was no use in trying to stop her now—for she was little short of insane.
Besides, they were naturally inquisitive to see what was to happen. There was nobody who would be likely to feel much alarm. There were but two ladies present; one of whom was the lively actress, who was not easily frightened, and the other the silent German beauty who, it turned out, did not understand a word of Russian, and seemed to be as stupid as she was lovely.
Her acquaintances invited her to their “At Homes” because she was so decorative. She was exhibited to their guests like a valuable picture, or vase, or statue, or firescreen. As for the men, Ptitsin was one of Rogojin’s friends; Ferdishenko was as much at home as a fish in the sea, Gania, not yet recovered from his amazement, appeared to be chained to a pillory. The old professor did not in the least understand what was happening; but when he noticed how extremely agitated the mistress of the house, and her friends, seemed, he nearly wept, and trembled with fright: but he would rather have died than leave Nastasia Philipovna at such a crisis, for he loved her as if she were his own granddaughter. Afanasy Ivanovitch greatly disliked having anything to do with the affair, but he was too much interested to leave, in spite of the mad turn things had taken; and a few words that had dropped from the lips of Nastasia puzzled him so much, that he felt he could not go without an explanation. He resolved therefore, to see it out, and to adopt the attitude of silent spectator, as most suited to his dignity. Genera Epanchin alone determined to depart. He was annoyed at the manner in which his gift had been returned, an though he had condescended, under the influence of passion, to place himself on a level with Ptitsin and Ferdishenko, his self-respect and sense of duty now returned together with a consciousness of what was due to his social rank and official importance. In short, he plainly showed his conviction that a man in his position could have nothing to do with Rogojin and his companions. But Nastasia interrupted him at his first words.
“Ah, general!” she cried, “I was forgetting! If I had only foreseen this unpleasantness! I won’t insist on keeping you against your will, although I should have liked you to be beside me now. In any case, I am most grateful to you for your visit, and flattering attention . . . but if you are afraid . . .”
“Excuse me, Nastasia Philipovna,” interrupted the general, with chivalric generosity. “To whom are you speaking? I have remained until now simply because of my devotion to you, and as for danger, I am only afraid that the carpets may be ruined, and the furniture smashed! . . . You should shut the door on the lot, in my opinion. But I confess that I am extremely curious to see how it ends.”
“Rogojin!” announced Ferdishenko.
“What do you think about it?” said the general in a low voice to Totski. “Is she mad? I mean mad in the medical sense of the word .. . . eh?”
“I’ve always said she was predisposed to it,” whispered Afanasy Ivanovitch slyly. “Perhaps it is a fever!”
Since their visit to Gania’s home, Rogojin’s followers had been increased by two new recruits—a dissolute old man, the hero of some ancient scandal, and a retired sub-lieutenant. A laughable story was told of the former. He possessed, it was said, a set of false teeth, and one day when he wanted money for a drinking orgy, he pawned them, and was never able to reclaim them! The officer appeared to be a rival of the gentleman who was so proud of his fists. He was known to none of Rogojin’s followers, but as they passed by the Nevsky, where he stood begging, he had joined their ranks. His claim for the charity he desired seemed based on the fact that in the days of his prosperity he had given away as much as fifteen roubles at a time. The rivals seemed more than a little jealous of one another. The athlete appeared injured at the admission of the “beggar” into the company. By nature taciturn, he now merely growled occasionally like a bear, and glared contemptuously upon the “beggar,” who, being somewhat of a man of the world, and a diplomatist, tried to insinuate himself into the bear’s good graces. He was a much smaller man than the athlete, and doubtless was conscious that he must tread warily. Gently and without argument he alluded to the advantages of the English style in boxing, and showed himself a firm believer in Western institutions. The athlete’s lips curled disdainfully, and without honouring his adversary with a formal denial, he exhibited, as if by accident, that peculiarly Russian object—an enormous fist, clenched, muscular, and covered with red hairs! The sight of this pre-eminently national attribute was enough to convince anybody, without words, that it was a serious matter for those who should happen to come into contact with it.
None of the band were very drunk, for the leader had kept his intended visit to Nastasia in view all day, and had done his best to prevent his followers from drinking too much. He was sober himself, but the excitement of this chaotic day—the strangest day of his life—had affected him so that he was in a dazed, wild condition, which almost resembled drunkenness.
He had kept but one idea before him all day, and for that he had worked in an agony of anxiety and a fever of suspense. His lieutenants had worked so hard from five o’clock until eleven, that they actually had collected a hundred thousand roubles for him, but at such terrific expense, that the rate of interest was only mentioned among them in whispers and with bated breath.
As before, Rogojin walked in advance of his troop, who followed him with mingled self-assertion and timidity. They were specially frightened of Nastasia Philipovna herself, for some reason.
Many of them expected to be thrown downstairs at once, without further ceremony, the elegant arid irresistible Zaleshoff among them. But the party led by the athlete, without openly showing their hostile intentions, silently nursed contempt and even hatred for Nastasia Philipovna, and marched into her house as they would have marched into an enemy’s fortress. Arrived there, the luxury of the rooms seemed to inspire them with a kind of respect, not unmixed with alarm. So many things were entirely new to their experience—the choice furniture, the pictures, the great statue of Venus. They followed their chief into the salon, however, with a kind of impudent curiosity. There, the sight of General Epanchin among the guests, caused many of them to beat a hasty retreat into the adjoining room, the “boxer” and “beggar” being among the first to go. A few only, of whom Lebedeff made one, stood their ground; he had contrived to walk side by side with Rogojin, for he quite understood the importance of a man who had a fortune of a million odd roubles, and who at this moment carried a hundred thousand in his hand. It may be added that the whole company, not excepting Lebedeff, had the vaguest idea of the extent of their powers, and of how far they could safely go. At some moments Lebedeff was sure that right was on their side; at others he tried uneasily to remember various cheering and reassuring articles of the Civil Code.
Rogojin, when he stepped into the room, and his eyes fell upon Nastasia, stopped short, grew white as a sheet, and stood staring; it was clear that his heart was beating painfully. So he stood, gazing intently, but timidly, for a few seconds. Suddenly, as though bereft of his senses, he moved forward, staggering helplessly, towards the table. On his way he collided against Ptitsin’s chair, and put his dirty foot on the lace skirt of the silent lady’s dress; but he neither apologized for this, nor even noticed it.
On reaching the table, he placed upon it a strange-looking object, which he had carried with him into the drawing-room. This was a paper packet, some six or seven inches thick, and eight or nine in length, wrapped in an old newspaper, and tied round three or four times with string.
Having placed this before her, he stood with drooped arms and head, as though awaiting his sentence.
His costume was the same as it had been in the morning, except for a new silk handkerchief round his neck, bright green and red, fastened with a huge diamond pin, and an enormous diamond ring on his dirty forefinger.
Lebedeff stood two or three paces behind his chief; and the rest of the band waited about near the door.
The two maid-servants were both peeping in, frightened and amazed at this unusual and disorderly scene.
“What is that?” asked Nastasia Philipovna, gazing intently at Rogojin, and indicating the paper packet.
“A hundred thousand,” replied the latter, almost in a whisper.
“Oh! so he kept his word—there’s a man for you! Well, sit down, please—take that chair. I shall have something to say to you presently. Who are all these with you? The same party? Let them come in and sit down. There’s room on that sofa, there are some chairs and there’s another sofa! Well, why don’t they sit down?”
Sure enough, some of the brave fellows entirely lost their heads at this point, and retreated into the next room. Others, however, took the hint and sat down, as far as they could from the table, however; feeling braver in proportion to their distance from Nastasia.
Rogojin took the chair offered him, but he did not sit long; he soon stood up again, and did not reseat himself. Little by little he began to look around him and discern the other guests. Seeing Gania, he smiled venomously and muttered to himself, “Look at that!”
He gazed at Totski and the general with no apparent confusion, and with very little curiosity. But when he observed that the prince was seated beside Nastasia Philipovna, he could not take his eyes off him for a long while, and was clearly amazed. He could not account for the prince’s presence there. It was not in the least surprising that Rogojin should be, at this time, in a more or less delirious condition; for not to speak of the excitements of the day, he had spent the night before in the train, and had not slept more than a wink for forty-eight hours.
“This, gentlemen, is a hundred thousand roubles,” said Nastasia Philipovna, addressing the company in general, “here, in this dirty parcel. This afternoon Rogojin yelled, like a madman, that he would bring me a hundred thousand in the evening, and I have been waiting for him all the while. He was bargaining for me, you know; first he offered me eighteen thousand; then he rose to forty, and then to a hundred thousand. And he has kept his word, see! My goodness, how white he is! All this happened this afternoon, at Gania’s. I had gone to pay his mother a visit—my future family, you know! And his sister said to my very face, surely somebody will turn this shameless creature out. After which she spat in her brother Gania’s face—a girl of character, that!”
“Nastasia Philipovna!” began the general, reproachfully. He was beginning to put his own interpretation on the affair.
“Well, what, general? Not quite good form, eh? Oh, nonsense! Here have I been sitting in my box at the French theatre for the last five years like a statue of inaccessible virtue, and kept out of the way of all admirers, like a silly little idiot! Now, there’s this man, who comes and pays down his hundred thousand on the table, before you all, in spite of my five years of innocence and proud virtue, and I dare be sworn he has his sledge outside waiting to carry me off. He values me at a hundred thousand! I see you are still angry with me, Gania! Why, surely you never really wished to take ME into your family? ME, Rogojin’s mistress! What did the prince say just now?”
“I never said you were Rogojin’s mistress—you are NOT!” said the prince, in trembling accents.
“Nastasia Philipovna, dear soul!” cried the actress, impatiently, “do be calm, dear! If it annoys you so—all this—do go away and rest! Of course you would never go with this wretched fellow, in spite of his hundred thousand roubles! Take his money and kick him out of the house; that’s the way to treat him and the likes of him! Upon my word, if it were my business, I’d soon clear them all out!”
The actress was a kind-hearted woman, and highly impressionable. She was very angry now.
“Don’t be cross, Daria Alexeyevna!” laughed Nastasia. “I was not angry when I spoke; I wasn’t reproaching Gania. I don’t know how it was that I ever could have indulged the whim of entering an honest family like his. I saw his mother—and kissed her hand, too. I came and stirred up all that fuss, Gania, this afternoon, on purpose to see how much you could swallow—you surprised me, my friend—you did, indeed. Surely you could not marry a woman who accepts pearls like those you knew the general was going to give me, on the very eve of her marriage? And Rogojin! Why, in your own house and before your own brother and sister, he bargained with me! Yet you could come here and expect to be betrothed to me before you left the house! You almost brought your sister, too. Surely what Rogojin said about you is not really true: that you would crawl all the way to the other end of the town, on hands and knees, for three roubles?”
“Yes, he would!” said Rogojin, quietly, but with an air of absolute conviction.
“H’m! and he receives a good salary, I’m told. Well, what should you get but disgrace and misery if you took a wife you hated into your family (for I know very well that you do hate me)? No, no! I believe now that a man like you would murder anyone for money— sharpen a razor and come up behind his best friend and cut his throat like a sheep—I’ve read of such people. Everyone seems money-mad nowadays. No, no! I may be shameless, but you are far worse. I don’t say a word about that other—”
“Nastasia Philipovna, is this really you? You, once so refined and delicate of speech. Oh, what a tongue! What dreadful things you are saying,” cried the general, wringing his hands in real grief.
“I am intoxicated, general. I am having a day out, you know—it’s my birthday! I have long looked forward to this happy occasion. Daria Alexeyevna, you see that nosegay-man, that Monsieur aux Camelias, sitting there laughing at us?”
“I am not laughing, Nastasia Philipovna; I am only listening with all my attention,” said Totski, with dignity.
“Well, why have I worried him, for five years, and never let him go free? Is he worth it? He is only just what he ought to be— nothing particular. He thinks I am to blame, too. He gave me my education, kept me like a countess. Money—my word! What a lot of money he spent over me! And he tried to find me an honest husband first, and then this Gania, here. And what do you think? All these five years I did not live with him, and yet I took his money, and considered I was quite justified.
“You say, take the hundred thousand and kick that man out. It is true, it is an abominable business, as you say. I might have married long ago, not Gania—Oh, no!—but that would have been abominable too.
“Would you believe it, I had some thoughts of marrying Totski, four years ago! I meant mischief, I confess—but I could have had him, I give you my word; he asked me himself. But I thought, no! it’s not worthwhile to take such advantage of him. No! I had better go on to the streets, or accept Rogojin, or become a washerwoman or something—for I have nothing of my own, you know. I shall go away and leave everything behind, to the last rag—he shall have it all back. And who would take me without anything? Ask Gania, there, whether he would. Why, even Ferdishenko wouldn’t have me!”
“No, Ferdishenko would not; he is a candid fellow, Nastasia Philipovna,” said that worthy. “But the prince would. You sit here making complaints, but just look at the prince. I’ve been observing him for a long while.”
Nastasia Philipovna looked keenly round at the prince.
“Is that true?” she asked.
“Quite true,” whispered the prince.
“You’ll take me as I am, with nothing?”
“I will, Nastasia Philipovna.”
“Here’s a pretty business!” cried the general. “However, it might have been expected of him.”
The prince continued to regard Nastasia with a sorrowful, but intent and piercing, gaze.
“Here’s another alternative for me,” said Nastasia, turning once more to the actress; “and he does it out of pure kindness of heart. I know him. I’ve found a benefactor. Perhaps, though, what they say about him may be true—that he’s an—we know what. And what shall you live on, if you are really so madly in love with Rogojin’s mistress, that you are ready to marry her —eh?”
“I take you as a good, honest woman, Nastasia Philipovna—not as Rogojin’s mistress.”
“Who? I?—good and honest?”
“Oh, you get those ideas out of novels, you know. Times are changed now, dear prince; the world sees things as they really are. That’s all nonsense. Besides, how can you marry? You need a nurse, not a wife.”
The prince rose and began to speak in a trembling, timid tone, but with the air of a man absolutely sure of the truth of his words.
“I know nothing, Nastasia Philipovna. I have seen nothing. You are right so far; but I consider that you would be honouring me, and not I you. I am a nobody. You have suffered, you have passed through hell and emerged pure, and that is very much. Why do you shame yourself by desiring to go with Rogojin? You are delirious. You have returned to Mr. Totski his seventy-five thousand roubles, and declared that you will leave this house and all that is in it, which is a line of conduct that not one person here would imitate. Nastasia Philipovna, I love you! I would die for you. I shall never let any man say one word against you, Nastasia Philipovna! and if we are poor, I can work for both.”
As the prince spoke these last words a titter was heard from Ferdishenko; Lebedeff laughed too. The general grunted with irritation; Ptitsin and Totski barely restrained their smiles. The rest all sat listening, open-mouthed with wonder.
“But perhaps we shall not be poor; we may be very rich, Nastasia Philipovna.” continued the prince, in the same timid, quivering tones. “I don’t know for certain, and I’m sorry to say I haven’t had an opportunity of finding out all day; but I received a letter from Moscow, while I was in Switzerland, from a Mr. Salaskin, and he acquaints me with the fact that I am entitled to a very large inheritance. This letter—”
The prince pulled a letter out of his pocket.
“Is he raving?” said the general. “Are we really in a mad-house?”
There was silence for a moment. Then Ptitsin spoke.
“I think you said, prince, that your letter was from Salaskin? Salaskin is a very eminent man, indeed, in his own world; he is a wonderfully clever solicitor, and if he really tells you this, I think you may be pretty sure that he is right. It so happens, luckily, that I know his handwriting, for I have lately had business with him. If you would allow me to see it, I should perhaps be able to tell you.”
The prince held out the letter silently, but with a shaking hand.
“What, what?” said the general, much agitated.
“What’s all this? Is he really heir to anything?”
All present concentrated their attention upon Ptitsin, reading the prince’s letter. The general curiosity had received a new fillip. Ferdishenko could not sit still. Rogojin fixed his eyes first on the prince, and then on Ptitsin, and then back again; he was extremely agitated. Lebedeff could not stand it. He crept up and read over Ptitsin’s shoulder, with the air of a naughty boy who expects a box on the ear every moment for his indiscretion.