Agitation and bewilderment were the order of the day; everybody waited for explanations, and asked one another what could be the meaning of this mystery? Some proposed to go and see for themselves; all agreed that it was most extraordinary. The ladies wrote notes to each other, came and whispered to one another, and sent their maids and husbands to ﬁnd out more.
What was particularly strange was, why had the prince put up at Maria Alexandrovna’s, and not somewhere else? This fact annoyed everyone; but, most of all, Mrs. Antipova, who happened to be a distant relative of the prince.
However, in order to clear up all these mysteries and ﬁnd an answer to all these questions, we must ourselves go and see Maria Alexandrovna. Will you follow me in, kind reader? It is only ten in the morning, certainly, as you point out; but I daresay she will receive such intimate friends, all the same. Oh, yes; she’ll see us all right.
It is ten o’clock in the morning, and we are at Maria Alexandrovna’s, and in that room which the mistress calls her “salon” on great occasions; she has a boudoir besides.
In this salon the walls are prettily papered, and the ﬂoor is nicely painted; the furniture is mostly red; there is a ﬁreplace, and on the mantelpiece a bronze clock with some figure – a Cupid – upon it, in dreadfully bad taste. There are large looking-glasses between the windows. Against the back wall there stands a magnificent grand piano – Zina’s – for Zina is a musician. On a table in the middle of the room hisses a silver tea-urn, with a very pretty tea-set alongside of it.
There is a lady pouring out tea, a distant relative of the family, and living with Maria Alexandrovna in that capacity, one Nastasia Petrovna Ziablova. She is a widow of over thirty, a brunette with a fresh-looking face and lively black eyes, not at all bad looking.
She is of a very animated disposition, laughs a great deal, is fond of scandal, of course; and can manage her own little aﬀairs very nicely. She has two children somewhere, being educated. She would much like to marry again. Her last husband was a military man.
Maria Alexandrovna herself is sitting at the ﬁre in a very benign frame of mind; she is dressed in a pale-green dress, which becomes her very well; she is unspeakably delighted at the arrival of the Prince, who, at this moment, is sitting upstairs, at his toilet table. She is so happy, that she does not even attempt to conceal her joy. A young man is standing before her and relating something in an animated way; one can see in his eyes that he wishes to curry favour with his listener.
This young fellow is about twenty-five years old, and his manners are decidedly good, though he has a silly way of going into raptures, and has, besides, a good deal too much of the “funny man” about him. He is well dressed and his hair is light; he is not a bad-looking fellow. But we have already heard of this gentleman: he is Mr. Mosgliakoﬀ. Maria Alexandrovna considers him rather a stupid sort of a man, but receives him very well. He is an aspirant for the hand of her daughter Zina, whom, according to his own account, he loves to distraction. In his conversation, he refers to Zina every other minute, and does his best to bring a smile to her lips by his witty remarks; but the girl is evidently very cool and indiﬀerent with him. At this moment she is standing away at the side near the piano, turning over the leaves of some book.
This girl is one of those women who create a sensation amounting almost to amazement when they appear in society. She is lovely to an almost impossible extent, a brunette with splendid black eyes, a grand ﬁgure and divine bust. Her shoulders and arms are like an antique statue; her gait that of an empress. She is a little pale to-day; but her lips, with the gleam of her pearly teeth between them, are things to dream of, if you once get a sight of them. Her expression is severe and serious.
Mr. Mosgliakoﬀ is evidently afraid of her intent gaze; at all events, he seems to cower before her when she looks at him. She is very simply dressed, in a white muslin frock – the white suits her admirably. But then, everything suits her! On her ﬁnger is a hair ring: it does not look as though the hair was her mother’s, from the colour. Mosgliakoﬀ has never dared to ask her whose hair it is. This morning she seems to be in a peculiarly depressed humour; she appears to be very much preoccupied and silent: but her mother is quite ready to talk enough for both; albeit she glances continually at Zina, as though anxious for her, but timidly, too, as if afraid of her.
“I am so pleased, Pavel Alexandrovitch,” she chirps to Mosgliakoﬀ; “so happy, that I feel inclined to cry the news out of the window to every passer-by. Not to speak of the delightful surprise – to both Zina and myself – of seeing you a whole fortnight sooner than we expected you – that, of course, ‘goes without saying'; but I am so, so pleased that you should have brought this dear prince with you. You don’t know how I love that fascinating old man. No, no! You would never believe it. You young people don’t understand this sort of rapture; you never would believe me, assure you as much as ever I pleased.
“Don’t you remember, Zina, how much he was to me at that time – six years ago? Why, I was his guide, his sister, his mother! There was something delightfully ingenuous and ennobling in our intimacy – one might say pastoral; I don’t know what to call it – it was delightful. That is why the poor dear prince thinks of my house, and only mine, with gratitude, now. Do you know, Pavel Alexandrovitch, perhaps you have saved him by thus bringing him to me? I have thought of him with quaking of heart all these six years – you’d hardly believe it, – and dreamed of him, too. They say that wretch of a woman has bewitched and ruined him; but you’ve got him out of the net at last. We must make the best of our opportunity now, and save him outright. Do tell me again, how did you manage it? Describe your meeting and all in detail; I only heard the chief point of the story just now, and I do so like details. So, he’s still at his toilet table now, is he? – “
“Yes. It was all just as I told you, Maria Alexandrovna!” begins Mosgliakoﬀ readily – delighted to repeat his story ten times over, if required – “I had driven all night, and not slept a wink. You can imagine what a hurry I was in to arrive here,” he adds, turning to Zina; “in a word, I swore at the driver, yelled for fresh horses, kicked up a row at every post station: my adventures would ﬁll a volume. Well, exactly at six o’clock in the morning I arrived at the last station, Igishova. ‘Horses, horses!’ I shouted, ’let’s have fresh horses quick; I’m not going to get out.’ I frightened the post-station man’s wife out of her wits; she had a small baby in her arms, and I have an idea that its mother’s fright will affect said baby’s supply of the needful. Well, the sunrise was splendid – ﬁne frosty morning – lovely! but I hadn’t time to look at anything. I got my horses – I had to deprive some other traveller of his pair; he was a professor, and we nearly fought a duel about it.
“They told me some prince had driven oﬀ a quarter of an hour ago. He had slept here, and was driving his own horses; but I didn’t attend to anything. Well, just seven miles from town, at a turn of the road, I saw that some surprising event had happened. A huge travelling carriage was lying on its side; the coachman and two flunkeys stood outside it, apparently dazed, while from inside the carriage came heartrending lamentations and cries. I thought I’d pass by and let them all be – ; it was no aﬀair of mine: but humanity insisted, and would not take a denial. (I think it is Heine says that humanity shoves its nose in everywhere!) So I stopped; and my driver and myself, with the other fellows, lifted the carriage on to its legs again, or perhaps I should say wheels, as it had no legs.
“I thought to myself, ‘this is that very prince they mentioned!’ So, I looked in. Good Heavens! it was our prince! Here was a meeting, if you like! I yelled at him, ‘Prince – uncle!’ Of course he hardly knew me at the ﬁrst glance, but he very soon recognised me. At least, I don’t believe he knows who I am really, even now; I think he takes me for someone else, not a relation. I saw him last seven years ago, as a boy; I remember him, because he struck me so; but how was he to remember me? At all events, I told him my name, and he embraced me ecstatically; and all the while he himself was crying and trembling with fright. He really was crying, I’ll take my oath he was! I saw it with my own eyes.
“Well, we talked a bit, and at last I persuaded him to get into my trap with me, and call in at Mordasoﬀ, if only for one day, to rest and compose his feelings. He told me that Stepanida Matveyevna had had a letter from Moscow, saying that her father, or daughter, or both, with all her family, were dying; and that she had wavered for a long time, and at last determined to go away for ten days. The prince sat out one day, and then another, and then a third, measuring wigs, and powdering and pomading himself; then he grew sick of it, and determined to go and see an old friend, a priest called Misael, who lived at the Svetozersk Hermitage. Some of the household, being afraid of the great Stepanida’s wrath, opposed the prince’s proposed journey; but the latter insisted, and started last night after dinner. He slept at Igishova, and went oﬀ this morning again, at sunrise. Just at the turn going down to the Reverend Mr. Misael’s, the carriage went over, and the prince was very nearly shot down the ravine.”
“Then I step in and save the prince, and persuade him to come and pay a visit to our mutual friend, Maria Alexandrovna (of whom the prince told me that she is the most delightful and charming woman he has ever known). And so here we are, and the prince is now upstairs attending to his wigs and so on, with the help of his valet, whom he took along with him, and whom he always would and will take with him wherever he goes; because he would sooner die than appear before ladies without certain little secret touches which require the valet’s hand. There you are, that’s the whole story.”
“Why, what a humourist he is, isn’t he, Zina?” said the lady of the house. “How beautifully you told the story! Now, listen, Paul: one question; explain to me clearly how you are related to the prince; you call him uncle!”
“I really don’t know, Maria Alexandrovna; seventh, cousin I think, or something of that sort. My aunt knows all about it; it was she who made me go down to see him at Donchanova, when I got kicked out by Stepanida! I simply call him ‘uncle,’ and he answers me; that’s about all our relationship.”
“Well, I repeat, it was Providence that made you bring him straight to my house as you did. I tremble to think of what might have happened to the poor dear prince if somebody else, and not I, had got hold of him! Why, they’d have torn him to pieces among them, and picked his bones! They’d have pounced on him as on a new-found mine; they might easily have robbed him; they are capable of it. You have no idea, Paul, of the depth of meanness and greediness to which the people of this place have fallen!”
“But, my dear good Maria Alexandrovna – as if he would ever think of bringing him anywhere but to yourself,” said the widow, pouring out a cup of tea; “you don’t suppose he would have taken the prince to Mrs. Antipova’s, surely, do you?”
“Dear me, how very long he is coming out,” said Maria Alexandrovna, impatiently rising from her chair; “it really is quite strange!”
“Strange! what, of uncle? Oh dear, no! he’ll probably be another five hours or so putting himself together; besides, since he has no memory whatever, he has very likely quite forgotten that he has come to your house! Why, he’s a most extraordinary man, Maria Alexandrovna.”
“Oh don’t, don’t! Don’t talk like that!”
“Why not, Maria Alexandrovna? He is a lump of composition, not a man at all! Remember, you haven’t seen him for six years, and I saw him half an hour ago. He is half a corpse; he’s only the memory of a man; they’ve forgotten to bury him! Why, his eye is made of glass, and his leg of cork, and he goes on wires; he even talks on wires!”
Maria Alexandrovna’s face took a serious expression. “What nonsense you talk,” she said; “and aren’t you ashamed of yourself, you, a young man and a relation too – to talk like that of a most honourable old nobleman! not to mention his incomparable personal goodness and kindness” (her voice here trembled with emotion). “He is a relic, a chip, so to speak, of our old aristocracy. I know, my dear young friend, that all this ﬂightiness on your part, proceeds from those ’new ideas’ of which you are so fond of talking; but, goodness me, I’ve seen a good deal more of life than you have: I’m a mother; and though I see the greatness and nobleness, if you like, of these ‘new ideas,’ yet I can understand the practical side of things too! Now, this gentleman is an old man, and that is quite enough to render him ridiculous in your eyes. You, who talk of emancipating your serfs, and ‘doing something for posterity,’ indeed! I tell you what it is, it’s your Shakespeare! You stuff yourself full of Shakespeare, who has long ago outlived his time, my dear Paul; and who, if he lived now, with all his wisdom, would never make head or tail of our way of life!”
“If there be any chivalry left in our modern society, it is only in the highest circles of the aristocracy. A prince is a prince either in a hovel or in a palace! You are more or less a representative of the highest circles; your extraction is aristocratic. I, too, am not altogether a stranger to the upper ten, and it’s a bad ﬂedgling that fouls its own nest! However, my dear Paul, you’ll forget your Shakespeare yet, and you’ll understand all this much better than I can explain it. I foresee it! Besides, I’m sure you are only joking; you did not mean what you said. Stay here, dear Paul, will you? I’m just going upstairs to make inquiries after the prince, he may want something.” And Maria Alexandrovna left the room hurriedly.
“Maria Alexandrovna seems highly delighted that Mrs. Antipova, who thinks so much of herself, did not get hold of the prince!” remarked the widow; “Mrs. Antipova must be gnashing her teeth with annoyance just now! She’s a relation, too, as I’ve been pointing out to Maria Alexandrovna.”
Observing that no one answered her, and casting her eyes on Zina and Mosgliakoﬀ, the widow suddenly recollected herself, and discreetly left the room, as though to fetch something. However, she rewarded herself for her discretion, by putting her ear to the keyhole, as soon as she had closed the door after her.
Pavel Alexandrovitch immediately turned to Zina. He was in a state of great agitation; his voice shook.
“Zenaida Afanassievna, are you angry with me?” he began, in a timid, beseechful tone.
“With you? Why?” asked Zina, blushing a little, and raising her magniﬁcent eyes to his face.
“For coming earlier. I couldn’t help it; I couldn’t wait another fortnight; I dreamed of you every night; so I ﬂew oﬀ to learn my fate. But you are frowning, you are angry; – oh; am I really not to hear anything deﬁnite, even now?”
Zina distinctly and decidedly frowned.
“I supposed you would speak of this,” she said, with her eyes drooped again, but with a firm and severe voice, in which some annoyance was perceptible; “and as the expectation of it was very tedious, the sooner you had your say, the better! You insist upon an answer again, do you? Very well, I say wait, just as I said it before. I now repeat, as I did then, that I have not as yet decided, and cannot therefore promise to be your wife. You cannot force a girl to such a decision, Pavel Alexandrovitch! However, to relieve your mind, I will add, that I do not as yet refuse you absolutely; and pray observe that I give you thus much hope of a favourable reply, merely out of forced deference to your impatience and agitation; and that if I think ﬁt afterwards to reject you altogether, you are not to blame me for having given you false hopes. So now you know.”
“Oh, but – but – what’s the use of that? What hope am I to get out of that, Zina?” cried Mosgliakoﬀ in piteous tones.
“Recollect what I have said, and draw whatever you please from the words; that’s your business. I shall add nothing. I do not refuse you; I merely say – wait! And I repeat, I reserve the free right of rejecting you afterwards if I choose so to do. Just one more word: if you come here before the ﬁxed time relying on outside protection, or even on my mother’s inﬂuence to help you gain your end, let me tell you, you make a great mistake; if you worry me now, I shall refuse you outright. I hope we understand each other now, and that I shall hear no more of this, until the period I named to you for my decision.” All this was said quietly and drily, and without a pause, as if learnt by rote. Paul felt foolish; but just at this moment Maria Alexandrovna entered the room, and the widow after her.
“I think he’s just coming, Zina! Nastasia Petrovna, make some new tea quick, please!” The good lady was considerably agitated.
“Mrs. Antipova has sent her maid over to inquire about the prince already. How angry she must be feeling just now,” remarked the widow, as she commenced to pass over the tea-urn.
“And what’s that to me!” replied Maria Alexandrovna, over her shoulder. “Just as though I care what she thinks! I shall not send a maid to her kitchen to inquire, I assure you! And I am surprised, downright surprised, that, not only you, but all the town, too, should suppose that that wretched woman is my enemy! I appeal to you, Paul – you know us both. Why should I be her enemy, now? Is it a question of precedence? Pooh! I don’t care about precedence! She may be ﬁrst, if she likes, and I shall be readiest of all to go and congratulate her on the fact. Besides, it’s all nonsense! Why, I take her part; I must take her part. People malign her; why do you all fall upon her so? Because she’s young, and likes to be smart; is that it? Dear me, I think ﬁnery is a good bit better than some other failings – like Natalia Dimitrievna’s, for instance, who has a taste for things that cannot be mentioned in polite society. Or is it that Mrs. Antipova goes out too much, and never stays at home? My goodness! why, the woman has never had any education; naturally she doesn’t care to sit down to read, or anything of that sort. True, she coquets and makes eyes at everybody who looks at her. But why do people tell her that she’s pretty? especially as she only has a pale face, and nothing else to boast of.
“She is amusing at a dance, I admit; but why do people tell her that she dances the polka so well? She wears hideous hats and things; but it’s not her fault that nature gave her no gift of good taste. She talks scandal; but that’s the custom of the place – who doesn’t here? That fellow, Sushikoﬀ, with his whiskers, goes to see her pretty often while her husband plays cards, but that may be merely a trumped-up tale; at all events I always say so, and take her part in every way! But, good heavens! here’s the prince at last! ‘tis he, ‘tis he! I recognise him! I should know him out of a thousand! At last I see you! At last, my Prince!” cried Maria Alexandrovna, – and she rushed to greet the prince as he entered the room.
At ﬁrst sight you would not take this prince for an old man at all, and it is only when you come near and take a good look at him, that you see he is merely a dead man working on wires. All the resources of science are brought to bear upon this mummy, in order to give it the appearance of life and youth. A marvellous wig, glorious whiskers, moustache and napoleon – all of the most raven black – cover half his face. He is painted and powdered with very great skill, so much so that one can hardly detect any wrinkles. What has become of them, goodness only knows.
He is dressed in the pink of fashion, just as though he had walked straight out of a tailor’s fashion-page. His coat, his gloves, tie, his waistcoat, his linen, are all in perfect taste, and in the very last mode. The prince limps slightly, but so slightly that one would suppose he did it on purpose because that was in fashion too. In his eye he wears a glass – in the eye which is itself glass already.
He was soaked with scent. His speech and manner of pronouncing certain syllables was full of aﬀectation; and this was, perhaps, all that he retained of the mannerisms and tricks of his younger days. For if the prince had not quite lost his wits as yet, he had certainly parted with nearly every vestige of his memory, which – alas! – is a thing which no amount of perfumeries and wigs and rouge and tight-lacing will renovate. He continually forgets words in the midst of conversation, and loses his way, which makes it a matter of some difficulty to carry on a conversation with him. However, Maria Alexandrovna has confidence in her inborn dexterity, and at sight of the prince she ﬂies into a condition of unspeakable rapture.
“Oh! but you’ve not changed, you’ve not changed a bit!” she cries, seizing her guest by both hands, and popping him into a comfortable arm-chair. “Sit down, dear Prince, do sit down! Six years, prince, six whole long years since we saw each other, and not a letter, not a little tiny scrap of a note all the while. Oh, how naughty you have been, prince! And how angry I have been with you, my dear friend! But, tea! tea! Good Heavens, Nastasia Petrovna, tea for the prince, quick!”
“Th-thanks, thanks; I’m very s-orry!” stammered the old man (I forgot to mention that he stammered a little, but he did even this as though it were the fashion to do it). “Very s-sorry; fancy, I-I wanted to co-come last year, but they t-told me there was chocho-cholera here.”
“There was foot and mouth disease here, uncle,” put in Mosgliakoﬀ, by way of distinguishing himself. Maria Alexandrovna gave him a severe look.