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Chapter 16

A minute later we were all laughing as though we were crazy.

"Let me explain; let me explain!" cried Alyosha, his ringing voice rising above our laughter. "They think it's just as usual ... that I've come with some nonsense. . . . I say, I've something most interesting to tell you. But will you ever be quiet?"

He was extremely anxious to tell his story. One could see from his face that he had important news. But the dignified air he assumed in his naive pride at the possession of such news tickled Natasha at once. I could not help laughing too. And the angrier he was with us the more we laughed. Alyosha's vexation and then childish despair reduced us at last to the condition of Gogol's midshipman who roared with laughter if one held up one's finger. Mavra, coming out of the kitchen, stood in the doorway and looked at us with grave indignation, vexed that Alyosha had not come in for a good "wigging" from Natasha, as she had been eagerly anticipating for the last five days, and that we were all so merry instead.

At last Natasha, seeing that our laughter was hurting Alyosha's feelings, left off laughing.

"What do you want to tell us?" she asked.

"Well, am I to set the samovar?" asked Mavra, interrupting Alyosha without the slightest ceremony.

"Be off, Mavra, be off!" he cried, waving his hands at her, in a hurry to get rid of her. "I'm going to tell you everything that has happened, is happening, and is going to happen, because I know all about it. I see, my friends, you want to know where I've been for the last five days--that's what I want to tell you, but you won't let me. To begin with, I've been deceiving you all this time, Natasha, I've been deceiving you for ever so long, and that's the chief thing. "

"Deceiving me?"

"Yes, deceiving you for the last month; I had begun it before my father came back. Now the time has come for complete openness. A month ago, before father came back, I got an immense letter from him, and I said nothing to either of you about it. In his letter he told me, plainly and simply--and, I assure you, in such a serious tone that I was really alarmed--that my engagement was a settled thing, that my fiancée was simply perfection; that of course I wasn't good enough for her, but that I must marry her all the same, and so I must be prepared to put all this nonsense out of my head, and so on, and so on--we know, of course, what he means by nonsense. Well, that letter I concealed from you. "

"You didn't!" Natasha interposed. "See how he flatters himself! As a matter of fact he told us all about it at once. I remember how obedient and tender you were all at once, and wouldn't leave my side, as though you were feeling guilty about something, and you told us the whole letter in fragments. "

"Impossible; the chief point I'm sure I didn't tell you. Perhaps you both guessed something, but that's your affair. I didn't tell you. I kept it secret and was fearfully unhappy about it. "

"I remember, Alyosha, you were continually asking my advice and told me all about it, a bit at a time, of course, as though it were an imaginary case," I added, looking at Natasha.

"You told us everything! Don't brag, please," she chimed in.

"As though you could keep anything secret! Deception is not your strong point. Even Mavra knew all about it. Didn't you, Mavra?"

"How could I help it?" retorted Mavra, popping her head in at the door. " You'd told us all about it before three days were over. You couldn't deceive a child."

"Foo! How annoying it is to talk to you! You're doing all this for spite, Natasha! And you're mistaken too, Mavra. I remember, I was like a madman then. Do you remember, Mavra?"

"To be sure I do, you're like a madman now."

"No, no, I don't mean that. Do you remember, we'd no money then and you went to pawn my silver cigar-case. And what's more, Mavra, let me tell you you're forgetting yourself and being horribly rude to me. It's Natasha has let you get into such ways. Well, suppose I did tell you all about it at the time, bit by bit (I do remember it now), but you don't know the tone of the letter, the tone of it. And the tone was what mattered most in the letter, let me tell you. That's what I'm talking about."

"Why, what was the tone?" asked Natasha.

"Listen, Natasha, you keep asking questions as though you were in fun. Don't joke about it. I assure you that it's very important. It was in such a tone that I was in despair. My father had never spoken to me like that. It was as though he would sooner expect an earthquake of Lisbon than that he should fail to get his own way; that was the tone of it."

"Well. well, tell us. Why did you want to conceal it from me?"

"Ach, my goodness! Why, for fear of frightening you! I hoped to arrange it all myself. Well, after that letter, as soon as my father came my troubles began. I prepared myself to answer him firmly, distinctly and earnestly, but somehow it never came off, He never asked me about it, he's cunning! On the contrary he behaved as though the whole thing were settled and as though any difference or misunderstanding between us were impossible. Do you hear, impossible, such confidence! And he was so affectionate, so sweet to me. I was simply amazed. How clever he is, Ivan Petrovitch, if only you knew! He has read everything; he knows everything; you've only to look at him once and he knows all your thoughts as though they were his own. That's no doubt why he has been called a Jesuit. Natasha doesn't like me to praise him. Don't be cross, Natasha. Well, so that's how it is . . . oh, by the way! At first he wouldn't give me any money, but now he has. He gave me some yesterday. Natasha, my angel! Our poverty is over now! Here, look! All he took off my allowance these last six months, to punish me, he paid yesterday. See how much there is; I haven't counted it yet. Mavra, look what a lot of money; now we needn't pawn our spoons and studs!"

He brought out of his pocket rather a thick bundle of notes, fifteen hundred roubles, and laid it on the table. Mavra looked at Alyosha with surprise and approval. Natasha eagerly urged him on.

"Well, so I wondered what I was to do," Alyosha went on. "How was I to oppose him? If he'd been nasty to me I assure you I wouldn't have thought twice about it. I'd have told him plainly I wouldn't, that I was grown up now, and a man, and that that was the end of it. And believe me, I'd have stuck to it. But as it is, what could I say to him? But don't blame me. I see you seem displeased, Natasha. Why do you look at one another? No doubt you're thinking: here they've caught him at once and he hasn't a grain of will. I have will, I have more than you think. And the proof of it is that in spite of my position I told myself at once, 'it is my duty; I must tell my father everything, everything,' and I began speaking and told him everything, and he listened. "

"But what? What did you tell him exactly?" Natasha asked anxiously.

"Why, that I don't want any other fiancée, and that I have one already--you. That is, I didn't tell him that straight out, but I prepared him for it, and I shall tell him to-morrow. I've made up my mind. To begin with I said that to marry for money was shameful and ignoble, and that for us to consider ourselves aristocrats was simply stupid (I talk perfectly openly to him as though he were my brother). Then I explained to him that I belonged to the tiers etat, and that the tiers etat c'est l'essentiel, that I am proud of being just like everybody else, and that I don't want to be distinguished in any way; in fact, I laid all those sound ideas before him. . . . I talked warmly, convincingly. I was surprised at myself. I proved it to him, even from his own point of view. . . . I said to him straight out--how can we call ourselves princes? It's simply a matter of birth; for what is there princely about us? We're not particularly wealthy, and wealth's the chief point. The greatest prince nowadays is Rothschild. And secondly, it's a long time since anything has been heard of us in real society. The last was Uncle Semyon Valkovsky, and he was only known in Moscow, and he was only famous for squandering his last three hundred serfs, and if father hadn't made money for himself, his grandsons might have been ploughing the land themselves. There are princes like that. We've nothing to be stuck-up over. In short, I told him everything that I was brimming over with--everything, warmly and openly; in fact, I said something more. He did not even answer me, but simply began blaming me for having given up going to Count Nainsky's, and then told me I must try and keep in the good graces of Princess K., my godmother, and that if Princess K. welcomes me then I shall be received everywhere, and my career is assured, and he went on and on about that! It was all hinting at my having given up everyone since I've been with you, Natasha, and that's being all your influence. But he hasn't spoken about you directly so far. In fact he evidently avoids it. We're both fencing, waiting, catching one another, and you may be sure that our side will come off best. "

"Well, that's all right. But how did it end, what has he decided? That's what matters. And what a chatterbox you are, Alyosha!"

"Goodness only knows. There's no telling what he's decided. But I'm not a chatterbox at all; I'm talking sense. He didn't settle anything, but only smiled at all my arguments; and such a smile, as though he were sorry for me. I know it's humiliating, but I'm not ashamed of it. 'I quite agree with you,' he said, 'but let's go to Count Nainsky's, and mind you don't say any- thing there. I understand you, but they won't.' I believe he's not very well received everywhere himself; people are angry with him about something. He seems to be disliked in society now. The count at first received me very majestically, quite superciliously, as though he had quite forgotten I grew up in his house; he began trying to remember, he did, really. He's simply angry with me for ingratitude, though really there was no sort of ingratitude on my part. It was horribly dull in his house, so I simply gave up going. He gave my father a very casual reception, too; so casual that I can't understand why he goes there. It all revolted me. Poor father almost has to eat humble pie before him. I understand that it's all for my sake, but I don't want anything. I wanted to tell my father what I felt about it, afterwards, but I restrained myself. And, indeed, what would be the good? I shan't change his convictions, I shall only make him angry, and he is having a bad time as it is. Well, I thought, I'll take to cunning and I'll outdo them all- I'll make the count respect me--and what do you think? I at once gained my object, everything was changed in a single day, Count Nainsky can't make enough of me now, and that was all my doing, only mine, it was all through my cunning, so that my father was quite astonished!"

"Listen, Alyosha, you'd better keep to the point!" Natasha cried impatiently. "I thought you would tell me something about us, and you only want to tell us how you distinguished yourself at Count Nainsky's. Your count is no concern of mine!" "No concern! Do you hear, Ivan Petrovitch, she says it's no concern of hers! Why, it's the greatest concern! You'll see it is yourself, it will all be explained in the end. Only let me tell you about it. And in fact (why not be open about it?) I'll. tell you what, Natasha, and you, too, Ivan Petrovitch, perhaps I really am sometimes very, very injudicious, granted even I'm sometimes stupid (for I know it is so at times). But in this case, I assure you, I showed a great deal of cunning . . . in fact . . . of cleverness, so that I thought you'd be quite pleased that I'm not always so . . . stupid. "

"What are you saying, Alyosha? Nonsense, dear!"

Natasha couldn't bear Alyosha to be considered stupid. How often she pouted at me, though she said nothing when I proved to Alyosha without ceremony that he had done something stupid it was a sore spot in her heart. She could not bear to see Alyosha humiliated, and probably felt it the more, the more she recognized his limitations. But she didn't give him a hint of her opinion for fear of wounding his vanity. He was particularly sensitive on this point, and always knew exactly what she was secretly thinking. Natasha saw this and was very sorry, and she at once tried to flatter and soothe him. That is why his words now raised painful echoes in her heart.

"Nonsense, Alyosha, you're only thoughtless. You're not at all like that," she added. "Why do you run yourself down?"

"Well, that's all right. So let me prove it to you. Father was quite angry with me after the reception at the count's. I thought, 'wait a bit.' We were driving then to the princess's. I heard long ago that she was so old that she was almost doting, and deaf besides, and awfully fond of little dogs. She has a perfect pack of them, and adores them. In spite of all that, she has an immense influence in society, so that even Count Nainsky, le superbe, does l'antichambre to her. So I hatched a complete plan of future action on the way. And what do you think I built it all on? Why, on the fact that dogs always like me. Yes, really; I have noticed it. Either there's some magnetism in me, or else it's because I'm fond of all animals, I don't know. Dogs do like me, anyway. And, by the way, talking of magnetism, I haven't told you, Natasha, we called up spirits the other day; I was at a spiritualist's. It's awfully curious, Ivan Petrovitch; it really, impressed me. I called up Julius Caesar. "

"My goodness! What did you want with Julius Caesar?" cried Natasha, going off into a peal of laughter. "That's the last straw!"

"Why not . . . as though I were such a . . . why shouldn't I call up Julius Caesar? What does it matter to him? Now she's laughing!"

"Of course it wouldn't matter to him at all ... oh, you dear! Well, what did Julius Caesar say to you?"

"Oh, he didn't say anything. I simply held the pencil and the pencil moved over the paper and wrote of itself. They said it was Julius Caesar writing. I don't believe in it. "

"But what did he write, then?"

"Why, he wrote something like the 'dip it in' in Gogol. Do leave oft laughing!"

"Oh, tell me about the princess, then. "

"Well, you keep interrupting me. We arrived at the princess's and I began by making love to Mimi. Mimi is a most disgusting, horrid old dog, obstinate, too, and fond of biting. The princess dotes on her, she simply worships her , I believe they are the same age. I began by feeding Mimi with sweetmeats, and in about ten minutes I had taught her to shake hands, which they had never been able to teach her before. The princess was in a perfect ecstasy, she almost cried with joy.

"'Mimi! Mimi! Mimi is shaking hands'".

Someone came in.

"'Mimi shakes hands, my godson here has taught her.'

"Count Nainsky arrived.

"'Mimi shakes hands!'

"She looked at me almost with tears of tenderness. She's an awfully nice old lady; I feel quite sorry for her. I was on the spot then, I flattered her again. On her snuff-box she has her own portrait, painted when she was a bride, sixty years ago. Well, she dropped her snuffbox. I picked up the snuff-box and exclaimed:

"'Quelle charmante peinture!' just as if I didn't know. 'It's an ideal beauty!'

"Well, that melted her completely. She talked to me of this and that; asked me where I had been studying, and whom I visit, and what splendid hair I had, and all that sort of thing. I made her laugh too. I told her a shocking story. She likes that sort of thing, She shook her finger at me, but she laughed a great deal. When she let me go, she kissed me and blessed me, and insisted I should go in every day to amuse her. The count pressed my hand; his eyes began to look oily. And as for father, though he's the kindest, and sincerest, and most honourable man in the world, if you'll believe me, he almost cried with joy on the way home. He hugged me, and became confidential, mysteriously confidential about a career, connexions, marriages, money; I couldn't understand a lot of it. It was then he gave me the money. That was all yesterday. To-morrow I'm to go to the princess's again. But still, my father's a very honourable man--don't you imagine anything--and although he keeps me away from you, Natasha, it's simply because he's dazzled by Katya's millions, and wants to get hold of them, and you haven't any; and he wants them simply for my sake, and it's merely through ignorance he is unjust to you. And what father doesn't want his son's happiness? It's not his fault that he has been accustomed to think that happiness is to be found in millions. They're all like that. One must look at him from that stand- point, you know, and no other, and then one can see at once that he's right. I've hurried to come to you, Natasha, to assure you of that, for I know you're prejudiced against him, and of course that's not your fault. I don't blame you for it ...... "

"Then all that's happened is that you've made yourself a position at the princess's. Is that all your cunning amounts to?" asked Natasha.

"Not at all. What do you mean? That's only the beginning. I only told you about the princess--because, you understand, through her I shall get a hold over my father; but my story hasn't begun yet. "

"Well, tell it then!"

"I've had another adventure this morning, and a very strange one too. I haven't got over it yet," Alyosha went on. "You must observe that, although it's all settled about our engagement between my father and the countess, there's been no formal announcement so far, so we can break it off at any moment without a scandal. Count Nainsky's the only person who knows it, but he's looked upon as a relation and a benefactor. What's more, though I've got to know Katya very well this last fortnight, till this very evening I've never said a word to her about the future, that is about marriage or ... love. Besides, it's been settled to begin by asking the consent of Princess K., from whom is expected all sorts of patronage and showers of gold. The world will say what she says. She has such connexions.... And what they want more than anything is to push me forward in society. But it's the countess, Katya's stepmother, who insists most strongly on this arrangement. The point is that perhaps the princess so far won't receive her because of her doings abroad, and if the princess won't receive her, most likely nobody else will. So my engagement to Katya is a good chance for her. So the countess, who used to be against the engagement, was highly delighted at my success with the princess; but that's beside the point. What matters is this. I saw something of Katerina Fyodorvna last year, but I was a boy then, and I didn't under- stand things, and so I saw nothing in her then . . . "

"Simply you loved me more then," Natasha broke in," that's why you saw nothing in her; and now. . . "

"Not, a word, Natasha!" cried Alyosha, hotly. "You are quite mistaken, and insulting me.... I won't even answer you; listen, and you'll see ... Ah, if only you knew Katya! If only you knew what a tender, clear, dove-like soul she is! But you will know. Only let me finish. A fortnight ago, when my father took me to see Katya as soon as they had arrived, I began to watch her intently. I noticed she watched me too. That roused my curiosity, to say nothing of my having a special intention of getting to know her, an intention I had had ever since I got that letter from my father that impressed me so much. I'm not going to say anything about her. I'm not going to praise her. I'll only say one thing. She's a striking contrast to all her circle. She has such an original nature, such a strong and truthful soul, so strong in its purity and truthfulness, that I'm simply a boy beside her, like a younger brother, though she is only seventeen. Another thing I noticed, there's a great deal of sadness about her, as though she had some secret: she is not talkative; at home she's almost always silent as though afraid to speak. . . . She seems to be brooding over something. She seems to be afraid of my father. She doesn't like her stepmother--I could see that; it's the countess spreads the story that her stepdaughter is so fond of her, for some object of her own. That's all false. Katya simply obeys her without question, and it seems as though there's some agreement between them about it. Four days ago, after all my observations, I made up my mind to carry out my intention, and this evening I did. My plan was to tell Katya everything, to confess everything, get her on our side, and so put a stop to it all. . . . "

"What! Tell her what, confess what?" Natasha asked uneasily.

"Everything, absolutely everything," answered Alyosha, "and thank God for inspiring me with the thought; but listen, listen! Four days ago I made up my mind to keep away from you both and stop it all myself. If I had been with you I should have been hesitating all the time. I should have been listening to you, and unable to decide on anything. By remaining alone, and putting myself in the position in which I was bound to repeat to myself every minute that I ought to stop it, that I must stop it, I screwed up my courage and--have stopped it! I meant to come back to you with the matter settled, and I've come with it settled!"

"What then? What? What has happened? Tell me quickly. "

It's very simple! I went straight to her, boldly and honestly. But I must first tell you one thing that happened just before, and struck me very much. just before we set off, father received a letter. I was just going into his study and was standing in the doorway. He did not see us. He was so much overcome by the letter that he talked to himself, uttered some exclamations, walked about the room quite beside himself, and suddenly burst out laughing, holding the letter in his hand. I was quite afraid to go in, and waited for a minute. Father was so delighted about something, so delighted; he spoke to me rather queerly; then suddenly broke off and told me to get ready at once, though it was not time for us to go. They had no one there to-day, only us two, and you were mistaken, Natasha, in thinking it was a party. You were told wrong. "

"Oh, do keep to the point, Alyosha, please; tell me, how you told Katya. "

"Luckily I was left for two hours alone with her. I simply told her that though they wanted to make a match between us, our marriage was impossible, that I had a great affection for her in my heart, and that she alone could save me. Then I told her everything. Only fancy, she knew nothing at all about our story, about you and me, Natasha. If only you could have seen how touched she was; at first she was quite scared. She turned quite white. I told her our whole story; how for my sake you'd abandoned your home; how we'd been living together, how harassed we were now, how afraid of everything, and that now we were appealing to her (I spoke in your name too, Natasha), that she would take our side, and tell her stepmother straight out that she wouldn't marry me; that that would be our one salvation, and that we had nothing to hope for from anyone else. She listened--with such interest, such sympathy. What eyes she had at that moment! Her whole soul was in them. Her eyes are perfectly blue. She thanked me for not doubting her, and promised to do all she could to help us. Then she began asking about you; said she wanted very much to know you, asked me to tell you that she loved you already like a sister, and that she hoped you would love her like a sister. And as soon as she heard I had not seen you for five days she began at once urging me to go to you. "

Natasha was touched.

"And you could tell us first of your triumphs with some deaf princess! Ach, Alyosha!" she exclaimed, looking at him reproachfully. "Well tell me about Katya; was she happy, cheerful, when she said good-bye to you?"

"Yes, she was glad that she was able to do something generous, but she was crying. For she loves me too, Natasha! She confessed that she had begun to love me; that she sees hardly anyone, and that she was attracted by me long ago. She noticed me particularly because she sees cunning and deception all round her, and I seemed to her a sincere and honest person. She stood up and said: 'Well, God be with you, Alexey Petrovitch. And I was expecting . . .' She burst out crying and went away without saying what. We decided that to-morrow she should tell her stepmother that she won't have me, and that tomorrow I should tell my father everything and speak out boldly and firmly. She reproached me for not having told him before, saying that an honourable man ought not to be afraid of anything. She is such a noble-hearted girl. She doesn't like my father either. She says he's cunning and mercenary. I de- fended him; she didn't believe me. If I don't succeed to- morrow with my father (and she feels convinced I shan't) then she advises me to get Princess K. to support me. Then no one would dare to oppose it. We promised to be like brother and sister to each other. Oh, if only you knew her story too, how unhappy she is, with what aversion she looks on her life with her stepmother, all her surroundings. She didn't tell me directly, as though she were afraid even of me, but I guessed it from some words, Natasha, darling! How delighted she would be with you if she could see you! And what a kind heart she has! One is so at home with her! You are created to be sisters and to love one another. I've been thinking so all along. And really I should like to bring you two together, and stand by admiring you. Don't imagine anything, Natasha, little one, and let me talk about her. I want to talk to you about her and to her about you. You know I love you more than anyone, more than her. . . .You're everything to me!"

Natasha looked at him caressingly, and as it were mournfully, and did not speak. His words seemed like a caress, and yet a torment to her.

"And I saw how fine Katya was a long time ago, at least a fortnight," he went on. " I've been going to them every evening, you see. As I went home I kept thinking of you both, kept comparing you. "

"Which of us came off best?" asked Natasha, smiling.

"Sometimes you and sometimes she. But you were always the best in the long run. When I talk to her I always feel I become somehow better, cleverer, and somehow finer. But to-morrow, tomorrow will settle everything!"

"And aren't you sorry for her? She loves you, you know. You say you've noticed it yourself. "

"Yes, I am, Natasha. But we'll all three love one another, and then . . . "

"And then 'good-bye'" Natasha brought out quietly, as though to herself.

Alyosha looked at her in amazement.

But our conversation was suddenly interrupted in the most unexpected way. In the kitchen, which was at the same time the entry, we heard a slight noise as though someone had come in. A minute later Mavra opened the door and began nodding to Alyosha on the sly, beckoning to him. We all turned to her.

"Someone's asking for you. Come along," she said in a mysterious voice.

"Who can be asking for me now?" said Alyosha, looking at us in bewilderment. "I'm coming!"

In the kitchen stood his father's servant in livery. It appeared that the prince had stopped his carriage at Natasha's lodging on his way home, and had sent to inquire whether Alyosha were there. Explaining this, the footman went away at once.

"Strange! This has never happened before," said Alyosha, looking at us in confusion. "What does it mean?"

Natasha looked at him uneasily. Suddenly Mavra opened the door again.

"Here's the prince himself!" she said in a hurried whisper, and at once withdrew.

Natasha turned pale and got up from her seat. Suddenly her eyes kindled. She stood leaning a little on the table, and looked in agitation towards the door, by which the uninvited visitor would enter.

"Natasha, don't be afraid! You're with me. I won't let you be insulted," whispered Alyosha, disconcerted but not over- whelmed. The door opened, and Prince Valkovsky in his own person appeared on the threshold.

Fyodor Dostoevsky