Translator: Eva Martin
HIPPOLYTE had now been five days at the Ptitsins'. His flitting from the prince's to these new quarters had been brought about quite naturally and without many words. He did not quarrel with the prince—in fact, they seemed to part as friends. Gania, who had been hostile enough on that eventful evening, had himself come to see him a couple of days later, probably in obedience to some sudden impulse. For some reason or other, Rogojin too had begun to visit the sick boy. The prince thought it might be better for him to move away from his (the prince's) house. Hippolyte informed him, as he took his leave, that Ptitsin "had been kind enough to offer him a corner," and did not say a word about Gania, though Gania had procured his invitation, and himself came to fetch him away. Gania noticed this at the time, and put it to Hippolyte's debit on account.
Gania was right when he told his sister that Hippolyte was getting better; that he was better was clear at the first glance. He entered the room now last of all, deliberately, and with a disagreeable smile on his lips.
Nina Alexandrovna came in, looking frightened. She had changed much since we last saw her, half a year ago, and had grown thin and pale. Colia looked worried and perplexed. He could not understand the vagaries of the general, and knew nothing of the last achievement of that worthy, which had caused so much commotion in the house. But he could see that his father had of late changed very much, and that he had begun to behave in so extraordinary a fashion both at home and abroad that he was not like the same man. What perplexed and disturbed him as much as anything was that his father had entirely given up drinking during the last few days. Colia knew that he had quarrelled with both Lebedeff and the prince, and had just bought a small bottle of vodka and brought it home for his father.
"Really, mother," he had assured Nina Alexandrovna upstairs, "really you had better let him drink. He has not had a drop for three days; he must be suffering agonies—The general now entered the room, threw the door wide open, and stood on the threshold trembling with indignation.
"Look here, my dear sir," he began, addressing Ptitsin in a very loud tone of voice; "if you have really made up your mind to sacrifice an old man—your father too or at all events father of your wife—an old man who has served his emperor—to a wretched little atheist like this, all I can say is, sir, my foot shall cease to tread your floors. Make your choice, sir; make your choice quickly, if you please! Me or this—screw! Yes, screw, sir; I said it accidentally, but let the word stand—this screw, for he screws and drills himself into my soul—"
"Hadn't you better say corkscrew?" said Hippolyte.
"No, sir, NOT corkscrew. I am a general, not a bottle, sir. Make your choice, sir—me or him."
Here Colia handed him a chair, and he subsided into it, breathless with rage.
"Hadn't you better—better—take a nap?" murmured the stupefied Ptitsin.
"A nap?" shrieked the general. "I am not drunk, sir; you insult me! I see," he continued, rising, "I see that all are against me here. Enough—I go; but know, sirs—know that—"
He was not allowed to finish his sentence. Somebody pushed him back into his chair, and begged him to be calm. Nina Alexandrovna trembled, and cried quietly. Gania retired to the window in disgust.
"But what have I done? What is his grievance?" asked Hippolyte, grinning.
"What have you done, indeed?" put in Nina Alexandrovna. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, teasing an old man like that— and in your position, too."
"And pray what IS my position, madame? I have the greatest respect for you, personally; but—"
"He's a little screw," cried the general; "he drills holes my heart and soul. He wishes me to be a pervert to atheism. Know, you young greenhorn, that I was covered with honours before ever you were born; and you are nothing better than a wretched little worm, torn in two with coughing, and dying slowly of your own malice and unbelief. What did Gavrila bring you over here for? They're all against me, even to my own son—all against me."
"Oh, come—nonsense!" cried Gania; "if you did not go shaming us all over the town, things might be better for all parties."
"What—shame you? I?—what do you mean, you young calf? I shame you? I can only do you honour, sir; I cannot shame you."
He jumped up from his chair in a fit of uncontrollable rage. Gania was very angry too.
"Honour, indeed!" said the latter, with contempt.
"What do you say, sir?" growled the general, taking a step towards him.
"I say that I have but to open my mouth, and you—"
Gania began, but did not finish. The two—father and son—stood before one another, both unspeakably agitated, especially Gania.
"Gania, Gania, reflect!" cried his mother, hurriedly.
"It's all nonsense on both sides," snapped out Varia. "Let them alone, mother."
"It's only for mother's sake that I spare him," said Gania, tragically.
"Speak!" said the general, beside himself with rage and excitement; "speak—under the penalty of a father's curse
"Oh, father's curse be hanged—you don't frighten me that way!" said Gania. "Whose fault is it that you have been as mad as a March hare all this week? It is just a week—you see, I count the days. Take care now; don't provoke me too much, or I'll tell all. Why did you go to the Epanchins' yesterday—tell me that? And you call yourself an old man, too, with grey hair, and father of a family! H'm—nice sort of a father."
"Be quiet, Gania," cried Colia. "Shut up, you fool!"
"Yes, but how have I offended him?" repeated Hippolyte, still in the same jeering voice. " Why does he call me a screw? You all heard it. He came to me himself and began telling me about some Captain Eropegoff. I don't wish for your company, general. I always avoided you—you know that. What have I to do with Captain Eropegoff? All I did was to express my opinion that probably Captain Eropegoff never existed at all!"
"Of course he never existed!" Gania interrupted.
But the general only stood stupefied and gazed around in a dazed way. Gania's speech had impressed him, with its terrible candour. For the first moment or two he could find no words to answer him, and it was only when Hippolyte burst out laughing, and said:
"There, you see! Even your own son supports my statement that there never was such a person as Captain Eropegoff!" that the old fellow muttered confusedly:
"Kapiton Eropegoff—not Captain Eropegoff!—Kapiton—major retired—Eropegoff—Kapiton."
"Kapiton didn't exist either!" persisted Gania, maliciously.
"What? Didn't exist?" cried the poor general, and a deep blush suffused his face.
"That'll do, Gania!" cried Varia and Ptitsin.
"Shut up, Gania!" said Colia.
But this intercession seemed to rekindle the general.
"What did you mean, sir, that he didn't exist? Explain yourself," he repeated, angrily.
"Because he DIDN'T exist—never could and never did—there! You'd better drop the subject, I warn you!"
"And this is my son—my own son—whom I—oh, gracious Heaven! Eropegoff—Eroshka Eropegoff didn't exist!"
"Ha, ha! it's Eroshka now," laughed Hippolyte.
"No, sir, Kapitoshka—not Eroshka. I mean, Kapiton Alexeyevitch— retired major—married Maria Petrovna Lu—Lu—he was my friend and companion—Lutugoff—from our earliest beginnings. I closed his eyes for him—he was killed. Kapiton Eropegoff never existed! tfu!"
The general shouted in his fury; but it was to be concluded that his wrath was not kindled by the expressed doubt as to Kapiton's existence. This was his scapegoat; but his excitement was caused by something quite different. As a rule he would have merely shouted down the doubt as to Kapiton, told a long yarn about his friend, and eventually retired upstairs to his room. But today, in the strange uncertainty of human nature, it seemed to require but so small an offence as this to make his cup to overflow. The old man grew purple in the face, he raised his hands. "Enough of this!" he yelled. "My curse—away, out of the house I go! Colia, bring my bag away!" He left the room hastily and in a paroxysm of rage.
His wife, Colia, and Ptitsin ran out after him.
"What have you done now?" said Varia to Gania. "He'll probably be making off THERE again! What a disgrace it all is!"
"Well, he shouldn't steal," cried Gania, panting with fury. And just at this moment his eye met Hippolyte's.
"As for you, sir," he cried, "you should at least remember that you are in a strange house and—receiving hospitality; you should not take the opportunity of tormenting an old man, sir, who is too evidently out of his mind."
Hippolyte looked furious, but he restrained himself.
"I don't quite agree with you that your father is out of his mind," he observed, quietly. "On the contrary, I cannot help thinking he has been less demented of late. Don't you think so? He has grown so cunning and careful, and weighs his words so deliberately; he spoke to me about that Kapiton fellow with an object, you know! Just fancy—he wanted me to—"
"Oh, devil take what he wanted you to do! Don't try to be too cunning with me, young man!" shouted Gania. "If you are aware of the real reason for my father's present condition (and you have kept such an excellent spying watch during these last few days that you are sure to be aware of it)—you had no right whatever to torment the—unfortunate man, and to worry my mother by your exaggerations of the affair; because the whole business is nonsense—simply a drunken freak, and nothing more, quite unproved by any evidence, and I don't believe that much of it!" (he snapped his fingers). "But you must needs spy and watch over us all, because you are a-a—"
"Screw!" laughed Hippolyte.
"Because you are a humbug, sir; and thought fit to worry people for half an hour, and tried to frighten them into believing that you would shoot yourself with your little empty pistol, pirouetting about and playing at suicide! I gave you hospitality, you have fattened on it, your cough has left you, and you repay all this—"
"Excuse me—two words! I am Varvara Ardalionovna's guest, not yours; YOU have extended no hospitality to me. On the contrary, if I am not mistaken, I believe you are yourself indebted to Mr. Ptitsin's hospitality. Four days ago I begged my mother to come down here and find lodgings, because I certainly do feel better here, though I am not fat, nor have I ceased to cough. I am today informed that my room is ready for me; therefore, having thanked your sister and mother for their kindness to me, I intend to leave the house this evening. I beg your pardon—I interrupted you—I think you were about to add something?"
"Oh—if that is the state of affairs—" began Gania.
"Excuse me—I will take a seat," interrupted Hippolyte once more, sitting down deliberately; "for I am not strong yet. Now then, I am ready to hear you. Especially as this is the last chance we shall have of a talk, and very likely the last meeting we shall ever have at all."
Gania felt a little guilty.
"I assure you I did not mean to reckon up debits and credits," he began, "and if you—"
"I don't understand your condescension," said Hippolyte. "As for me, I promised myself, on the first day of my arrival in this house, that I would have the satisfaction of settling accounts with you in a very thorough manner before I said good-bye to you. I intend to perform this operation now, if you like; after you, though, of course."
"May I ask you to be so good as to leave this room?"
"You'd better speak out. You'll be sorry afterwards if you don't."
"Hippolyte, stop, please! It's so dreadfully undignified," said Varia.
"Well, only for the sake of a lady," said Hippolyte, laughing. "I am ready to put off the reckoning, but only put it off, Varvara Ardalionovna, because an explanation between your brother and myself has become an absolute necessity, and I could not think of leaving the house without clearing up all misunderstandings first."
"In a word, you are a wretched little scandal-monger," cried Gania, "and you cannot go away without a scandal!"
"You see," said Hippolyte, coolly, " you can't restrain yourself. You'll be dreadfully sorry afterwards if you don't speak out now. Come, you shall have the first say. I'll wait."
Gania was silent and merely looked contemptuously at him.
"You won't? Very well. I shall be as short as possible, for my part. Two or three times to-day I have had the word 'hospitality' pushed down my throat; this is not fair. In inviting me here you yourself entrapped me for your own use; you thought I wished to revenge myself upon the prince. You heard that Aglaya Ivanovna had been kind to me and read my confession. Making sure that I should give myself up to your interests, you hoped that you might get some assistance out of me. I will not go into details. I don't ask either admission or confirmation of this from yourself; I am quite content to leave you to your conscience, and to feel that we understand one another capitally."
"What a history you are weaving out of the most ordinary circumstances!" cried Varia.
"I told you the fellow was nothing but a scandalmonger," said Gania.
"Excuse me, Varia Ardalionovna, I will proceed. I can, of course, neither love nor respect the prince, though he is a good-hearted fellow, if a little queer. But there is no need whatever for me to hate him. I quite understood your brother when he first offered me aid against the prince, though I did not show it; I knew well that your brother was making a ridiculous mistake in me. I am ready to spare him, however, even now; but solely out of respect for yourself, Varvara Ardalionovna.
"Having now shown you that I am not quite such a fool as I look, and that I have to be fished for with a rod and line for a good long while before I am caught, I will proceed to explain why I specially wished to make your brother look a fool. That my motive power is hate, I do not attempt to conceal. I have felt that before dying (and I am dying, however much fatter I may appear to you), I must absolutely make a fool of, at least, one of that class of men which has dogged me all my life, which I hate so cordially, and which is so prominently represented by your much esteemed brother. I should not enjoy paradise nearly so much without having done this first. I hate you, Gavrila Ardalionovitch, solely (this may seem curious to you, but I repeat)—solely because you are the type, and incarnation, and head, and crown of the most impudent, the most self-satisfied, the most vulgar and detestable form of commonplaceness. You are ordinary of the ordinary; you have no chance of ever fathering the pettiest idea of your own. And yet you are as jealous and conceited as you can possibly be; you consider yourself a great genius; of this you are persuaded, although there are dark moments of doubt and rage, when even this fact seems uncertain. There are spots of darkness on your horizon, though they will disappear when you become completely stupid. But a long and chequered path lies before you, and of this I am glad. In the first place you will never gain a certain person."
"Come, come! This is intolerable! You had better stop, you little mischief-making wretch!" cried Varia. Gania had grown very pale; he trembled, but said nothing.
Hippolyte paused, and looked at him intently and with great gratification. He then turned his gaze upon Varia, bowed, and went out, without adding another word.
Gania might justly complain of the hardness with which fate treated him. Varia dared not speak to him for a long while, as he strode past her, backwards and forwards. At last he went and stood at the window, looking out, with his back turned towards her. There was a fearful row going on upstairs again.
"Are you off?" said Gania, suddenly, remarking that she had risen and was about to leave the room. "Wait a moment—look at this."
He approached the table and laid a small sheet of paper before her. It looked like a little note.
"Good heavens!" cried Varia, raising her hands.
This was the note:
"GAVRILA ARDOLIONOVITCH,—persuaded of your kindness of heart, I have determined to ask your advice on a matter of great importance to myself. I should like to meet you tomorrow morning at seven o'clock by the green bench in the park. It is not far from our house. Varvara Ardalionovna, who must accompany you, knows the place well.
"What on earth is one to make of a girl like that?" said Varia.
Gania, little as he felt inclined for swagger at this moment, could not avoid showing his triumph, especially just after such humiliating remarks as those of Hippolyte. A smile of self-satisfaction beamed on his face, and Varia too was brimming over with delight.
"And this is the very day that they were to announce the engagement! What will she do next?"
"What do you suppose she wants to talk about tomorrow?" asked Gania.
"Oh, THAT'S all the same! The chief thing is that she wants to see you after six months' absence. Look here, Gania, this is a SERIOUS business. Don't swagger again and lose the game—play carefully, but don't funk, do you understand? As if she could possibly avoid seeing what I have been working for all this last six months! And just imagine, I was there this morning and not a word of this! I was there, you know, on the sly. The old lady did not know, or she would have kicked me out. I ran some risk for you, you see. I did so want to find out, at all hazards."
Here there was a frantic noise upstairs once more; several people seemed to be rushing downstairs at once.
"Now, Gania," cried Varia, frightened, "we can't let him go out! We can't afford to have a breath of scandal about the town at this moment. Run after him and beg his pardon—quick."
But the father of the family was out in the road already. Colia was carrying his bag for him; Nina Alexandrovna stood and cried on the doorstep; she wanted to run after the general, but Ptitsin kept her back.
"You will only excite him more," he said. "He has nowhere else to go to—he'll be back here in half an hour. I've talked it all over with Colia; let him play the fool a bit, it will do him good."
"What are you up to? Where are you off to? You've nowhere to go to, you know," cried Gania, out of the window.
"Come back, father; the neighbours will hear!" cried Varia.
The general stopped, turned round, raised his hands and remarked: "My curse be upon this house!"
"Which observation should always be made in as theatrical a tone as possible," muttered Gania, shutting the window with a bang.
The neighbours undoubtedly did hear. Varia rushed out of the room.
No sooner had his sister left him alone, than Gania took the note out of his pocket, kissed it, and pirouetted around.