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Chapter 17

He took us all in a rapid attentive glance. It was impossible to guess from this glance whether he had come as a friend or as an enemy. But I will describe his appearance minutely. He struck me particularly that evening.

I had seen him before. He was a man of forty-five, not more, with regular and strikingly handsome features, the expression of which varied according to circumstances; but it changed abruptly, completely, with extraordinary rapidity, passing from the most agreeable to the most surly or displeased expression, as though some spring were suddenly touched. The regular oval of his rather swarthy face, his superb teeth, his small, rather thin, beautifully chiselled lips, his rather long straight nose, his high forehead, on which no wrinkle could be discerned, his rather large grey eyes, made him handsome, and yet his face did not make a pleasant impression. The face repelled because its expression was not spontaneous, but always, as it were, artificial, deliberate, borrowed, and a blind conviction grew upon one that one would never read his real expression. Looking more carefully one began to suspect behind the invariable mask something spiteful, cunning, and intensely egoistic. One's attention was particularly caught by his fine eyes, which were grey and frank-looking. They were not completely under the control of his will, like his other features. He might want to look mild and friendly, but the light in his eyes was as it were twofold, and together with the mild friendly radiance there were flashes that were cruel, mistrustful, searching and spiteful.... He was rather tall, elegantly, rather slimly built, and looked strikingly young for his age. His soft dark brown hair had scarcely yet begun to turn grey. His ears, his hands, his feet were remarkably fine. It was preeminently the beauty of race. He was dressed with refined elegance and freshness but with some affectation of youth, which suited him, however. He looked like Alyosha's elder brother. At any rate no one would have taken him for the father of so grown-up a son.

He went straight up to Natasha and said, looking at her firmly:

"My calling upon you at such an hour, and unannounced, is strange, and against all accepted rules. But I trust that you will believe I can at least recognize the eccentricity of my behaviour. I know, too, with whom I have to deal; I know that you are penetrating and magnanimous. Only give me ten minutes, and I trust that you will understand me and justify it. "

He said all this courteously but with force, and, as it were, emphasis.

"Sit down," said Natasha, still unable to shake off her con- fusion and some alarm.

He made a slight bow and sat down.

"First of all allow me to say a couple of words to him," he said, indicating his son. "As soon as you had gone away, Alyosha, without waiting for me or even taking leave of us, the countess was informed that Katerina Fyodorovna was ill. She was hastening to her, but Katerina Fyodorovna herself suddenly came in distressed and violently agitated. She told us, forthwith, that she could not marry you. She said, too, that she was going into a nunnery, that you had asked for her help, and had told her that you loved Natalya Nikolaevna. This extraordinary declaration on the part of Katerina Fyodorovna, especially at such a moment, was of course provoked by the extreme strange- ness of your explanation with her. She was almost beside herself; you can understand hole shocked and alarmed I was. As I drove past just now I noticed a light in your window," he went on, addressing Natasha, "then an idea which had been haunting me for a long time gained such possession of me that I could not resist my first impulse, and came in to see you. With what object? I will tell you directly, but I beg you beforehand not to be surprised at a certain abruptness in my explanation, It is all so sudden. . . "

"I hope I shall understand and appreciate what you are going to say, as I ought," answered Natasha, faltering.

The prince scrutinized her intently as though he were in a hurry to understand her through and through in one minute. "I am relying on your penetration too," he went on, "and I have ventured to come to you now just because I knew with whom I should have to deal. I have known you for a long time now, although I was at one time so unfair to you and did you injustice. Listen. You know that between me and your father there are disagreements of long standing. I don't justify myself; perhaps I have been more to blame in my treatment of him than I had supposed till now. But if so I was myself deceived. I am suspicious, and I recognize it. I am disposed to suspect evil rather than good: an unhappy trait, characteristic of a cold heart. But it is not my habit to conceal my failings. I believed in the past all that was said against you, and when you left your parents I was terror-stricken for Alyosha. But then I did not know you. The information I have gathered little by little has completely reassured me. I have watched you, studied you, and am at last convinced that my suspicions were groundless. I have learnt that you are cut off from your family. I know, too, that your father is utterly opposed to your marriage with my son, and the mere fact that, having such an influence, such power, one may say, over Alyosha, you have not hitherto taken advantage of that power to force him to marry you--that alone says much for you. And yet I confess it openly, I was firmly resolved at that time to hinder any possibility of your marriage with my son. I know I am expressing myself too straight- forwardly, but. at this moment straightforwardness on my part is what is most needed. You will admit that yourself when you have heard me to the end. Soon after you left your home I went away from Petersburg, but by then I had no further fears for Alyosha. I relied on your generous pride. I knew that you did not yourself want a marriage before the family dissensions were over, that you were unwilling to destroy the good under- standing between Alyosha and me--for I should never have forgiven his marriage with you--that you were unwilling, too, to have it said of you that you were trying to catch a prince for a husband, and to be connected with our family. On the contrary, you showed a positive neglect of us, and were perhaps waiting for the moment when I should come to beg you to do us the honour to give my son your hand. Yet I obstinately remained your ill-wisher. I am not going to justify myself, but I will not conceal my reasons. Here they are. You have neither wealth nor position. Though I have property, we need more; our family is going downhill. We need money and connexions. Though Countess Zinaida Fyodorovna's stepdaughter has no connexions, she is very wealthy. If we delayed, suitors would turn up and carry her off. And such a chance was not to be lost. So, though Alyosha is still so young, I decided to make a match for him. You see I am concealing nothing. You may look with scorn on a father who admits himself that from prejudice and mercenary motives he urged his son to an evil action; for to desert a generous hearted girl who has sacrificed everyone to him, and whom he has treated so badly, is an evil action. But I do not defend myself. My second reason for my son's proposed marriage was that the girl is highly deserving of love and respect. She is handsome, well-educated, has a charming disposition, and is very intelligent, though in many ways still a child. Alyosha has no character, he is thoughtless, extremely injudicious, and at two-and-twenty is a perfect child. He has at most one virtue, a good heart, positively a dangerous possession with his other failings. I have noticed for a long time that my influence over him was beginning to grow less; the impulsiveness and enthusiasm of youth are getting the upper hand, and even get the upper hand of some positive duties. I perhaps love him too fondly; but I am convinced that I am not a sufficient guide for him. And yet he must always be under some good influence. He has a submissive nature, weak and loving, liking better to love and to obey than to command. So he will be all his life. You can imagine how delighted I was at finding in Katerina Fyodorovna the ideal girl I should have desired for my son's wife. But my joy came too late. He was already under the sway of another influence that nothing could shake--yours. I have kept a sharp watch on him since I returned to Petersburg a month ago, and I notice with surprise a distinct change for the better in him. His irresponsibility and childishness are scarcely altered; but certain generous feelings are stronger in him. He begins to be interested not only in playthings, but in what is lofty, noble, and more genuine. His ideas are queer, unstable, sometimes absurd; but the desire, the impulse, the feeling is finer, and that is the foundation of everything; and all this improvement in him is undoubtedly your work. You have remodelled him.

I will confess the idea did occur to me, then, that you rather than anyone might secure his happiness. But I dismissed that idea, I did not wish to entertain it. I wanted to draw him away from you at any cost. I began to act, and thought I had gained my object. Only an hour ago I thought that the victory was mine. But what has just happened at the countess's has upset all my calculations at once, and what struck me most of all was something unexpected: the earnest- ness and constancy of Alyosha's devotion to you, the persistence and vitality of that devotion--which seemed strange in him. I repeat, you have remodelled him completely. I saw all at once that the change in him had gone further than I had supposed. He displayed to-day before my eyes a sudden proof of an intelligence of which I had not the slightest suspicion, and at the same time an extraordinary insight and subtlety of feeling. He chose the surest way of extricating himself from what he felt to be a difficult position. He touched and stirred the noblest chords in the human heart--the power of forgiving and repaying good for evil. He surrendered himself into the hands of the being he was injuring, and appealed to her for sympathy and help. He roused all the pride of the woman who already loved him by openly telling her she had a rival, and aroused at the same time her sympathy for her rival, and forgiveness and the promise of disinterested, sisterly affection for himself. To go into such explanations without rousing resentment and mortification--to do that is sometimes beyond the capacity of the subtlest and cleverest; only pure young hearts under good guidance can do this. I am sure, Natalya Nikolaevna, that you took no part by word or suggestion in what he did to-day. You have perhaps only just heard of it from him. I am not mistaken. Am I?"

"You are not mistaken," Natasha assented. Her face was glowing, and her eyes shone with a strange light as though of inspiration. Prince Valkovsky's eloquence was beginning to produce its effect. "I haven't seen Alyosha for five days," she, added. He thought of all this himself and carried it all out himself.

"Exactly so," said Prince Valkovsky, "but, in spite of that, all this surprising insight, all this decision and recognition of duty, this creditable manliness, in fact, is all the result of your influence on him. I had thought all this out and was reflecting on it on my way home, and suddenly felt able to reach a decision. The proposed match with the countess's stepdaughter is broken off, and cannot be renewed; but if it were possible it could never come to pass. What if I have come to believe that you are the only woman that can make him happy, that you are his true guide, that you have already laid the foundations of his future happiness! I have concealed nothing from you and I am concealing nothing now; I think a great deal of a career, of money, of position, and even of rank in the service. With my intellect I recognize that a great deal of this is conventional, but I like these conventions, and am absolutely disinclined to run counter, to them. But there are circumstances when other considerations have to come in, when everything cannot be judged by the same standard. . . . Besides, I love my son dearly. In short, I have come to the conclusion that Alyosha must not be parted from you, because without you he will be lost. And must I confess it? I have perhaps been coming to this conclusion for the last month, and only now realize that the conclusion is a right one.

Of course, I might have called on you to-morrow to tell you all this, instead of disturbing you at midnight. But my haste will show you, perhaps, how warmly, and still more how sincerely, I feel in the matter. I am not a boy, and I could not at my age make up my mind to any step without thinking it over. Every- thing had been thought over and decided before I came here. But I feel that I may have to wait some time before you will be convinced of my sincerity. . . . But to come to the point Shall I explain now why I came here? I came to do my duty to you, and solemnly, with the deepest respect, I beg you to make my son happy and to give him your hand. Oh, do not imagine that I have come like an angry father, who has been brought at last to forgive his children and graciously to consent to their happiness. No! No! You do me an injustice if you suppose I have any such ideas. Do not imagine either that I reckon on your consent, relying on the sacrifices you have made for my son; no again! I am the first to declare aloud that he does not deserve you, and (he is candid and good) he will say the same himself. But that is not enough. It is not only this that has brought me here at such an hour . . . I have come here, (and he rose from his seat respectfully and with a certain solemnity), "I have come here to become your friend! I know I have no right whatever to this, quite the contrary! But - allow me to earn the right! Let me hope . . . "

Making a respectful bow to Natasha he awaited her reply. I was watching him intently all the time he was speaking. He noticed it.

He made his speech coldly, with some display of eloquence, and in parts with in certain nonchalance. The tone of the whole speech was incongruous indeed with the impulse that had brought him to us at an hour so inappropriate for a first visit, especially under such circumstances. Some of his expressions were evidently premeditated, and in some parts of his long speech--which was strange from its very length--he seemed to be artificially assuming the air of an eccentric man struggling to conceal an overwhelming feeling under a show of humour, carelessness and jest. But I only made all these reflections afterwards; at the time the effect was different. He uttered the last words so sincerely, with so much feeling, with such an air of genuine respect for Natasha, that it conquered us all. There was actually the glimmer of a tear on his eyelashes. Natasha's generous heart was completely won. She, too, got up, and, deeply moved, held out her hand to him without a word. He took it and kissed it with tenderness and emotion. Alyosha was beside himself with rapture.

"What did I tell you, Natasha?" he cried. "You wouldn't believe me. You wouldn't believe in his being the noblest man in the world! You see, you see for yourself! . . . "

He rushed to his father and hugged him warmly. The latter responded as warmly, but hastened to cut short the touching scene, as though ashamed to show his emotion.

"Enough," he said, and took his hat. "I must go. I asked you to give me ten minutes and I have been here a whole hour," he added, laughing. "But I leave you with impatient eagerness to see you again as soon as possible. Will you allow me to visit you as often as I can?"

"Yes, yes," answered Natasha, "as often as you can . . . I want to make haste . . . to be fond of you . . . " she added in embarrassment.

"How sincere you are, how truthful," said Prince Valkovsky, smiling at her words. "You won't be insincere even to be polite. But your sincerity is more precious than all artificial politeness. Yes! I recognize that it will take me a long, long time to deserve your love. "

"Hush, don't praise me . . . . Enough," Natasha whispered in confusion. How delightful she was at that moment!

"So be it," Prince Valkovsky concluded. "I'll say only a couple of words of something practical. You cannot imagine how unhappy I am! Do you know I can't be with you to- morrow--neither to-morrow nor the day after. I received a letter this evening of such importance to me (requiring my presence on business at once) that I cannot possibly neglect it. I am leaving Petersburg to-morrow morning. Please do not imagine that I came to you to-night because I should have no time to-morrow or the day after. Of course you don't think so, but that is just an instance of my suspicious nature. Why should I fancy that you must think so? Yes, my suspicious nature has often been a drawback to me in my life, and my whole misunderstanding with your family has perhaps been due to my unfortunate character! ... To-day is Tuesday. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday I shall not be in Petersburg. I hope to return on Saturday for certain; and I will be with you the same day. Tell me, may I come to you for the whole evening?" "Of course, of course!" cried Natasha. "On Saturday evening I shall expect you... I shall expect you impatiently!" "Ah, how happy I am! I shall get to know you better and better! But . . . I must go! I cannot go without shaking hands with you, though," he added, turning to me. "I beg your pardon! We are all talking so disconnectedly. I have several times had the pleasure of meeting you, and once, indeed, we were introduced. I cannot take my leave without telling you how glad I should be to renew our acquaintance. . . . "

"We have met, it's true," I answered, taking his hand.

"But I don't remember that we became acquainted. "

"At Prince M.'s, last year. "

"I beg your pardon, I've forgotten. But I assure you this time I shall not forget. This evening will always remain in my memory. "

"Yes, you are right. I feel the same. I have long known that you have been a good and true friend to Natalya Nikolaevna and my son. I hope you three will admit me as a fourth. May I?" he added, addressing Natasha.

"Yes, he is a true friend to us, and we must all hold together," Natasha answered with deep feeling.

Poor girl! She was positively beaming with delight that the prince had not overlooked me. How she loved me!

"I have met many worshippers of your talent," Prince Valkovsky went on. "And I know two of your most sincere admirers--the countess, my dearest friend, and her stepdaughter Katerina Fyodorovna Filimonov. They would so like to know you personally. Allow me to hope that you will let me have the pleasure of presenting you to those ladies. "

"You are very flattering, though now I see so few people . . . "

"But give me your address! Where do you live? I shall do myself the pleasure . . . "

"I do not receive visitors, prince. At least not at present. "

"But, though I have not deserved to be an exception ... I ... "

"Certainly, since you insist I shall be delighted. I live at -- Street, in Klugen's Buildings. "

"Klugen's Buildings!" he cried, as though surprised something. "What! Have you . . . lived there long?"

"No, not long," I answered, instinctively watching him. "I live at No. 44. "

"Forty-four? You are living . . . alone?"

"Quite alone. "

"O-oh! I ask you because I think I know the house. So much the better. . . . I will certainly come and see you, certainly! I shall have much to talk over with you and I look for great things from you. You can oblige me in many ways. You see I am beginning straight off by asking you a favour. But good-bye! Shake hands again!"

He shook my hand and Alyosha's, kissed Natasha's hand again and went out without suggesting that Alyosha should follow him.

We three remained overwhelmed. It had all happened so unexpectedly, so casually. We all felt that in one instant everything had changed, and that something new and unknown was beginning. Alyosha without a word sat down beside Natasha and softly kissed her hand. From time to time he peeped into her face as though to see what she would say. "Alyosha, darling, go and see Katerina Fyodorovna tomorrow," she brought out at last.

"I was thinking of that myself," he said, "I shall certainly go. "

"But perhaps it will be painful for her to see you. What's to be done?"

"I don't know, dear. I thought of that too. I'll look round. I shall see . . . then I'll decide. Well, Natasha, every- thing is changed for us now," Alyosha said, unable to contain himself.

She smiled and gave him a long, tender look.

"And what delicacy he has. He saw how poor your lodging is and not a word ... "

"Of what?"

"Why . . . of your moving . . . or anything," he added reddening.

"Nonsense, Alyosha, why ever should he?"

"That's just what I say. He has such delicacy. And how he praised you! I told you so . . . I told you. Yes, he's capable of understanding and feeling anything! But he talked of me as though I were a baby; they all treat me like that. But I suppose I really am. "

"You're a child, but you see further than any of us. You're good, Alyosha!"

"He said that my good heart would do me harm. How's that? I don't understand. But I say, Natasha, oughtn't I to make haste and go to him? I'll be with you as soon as it's light to-morrow. "

"Yes, go, darling, go. You were right to think of it. And be sure to show yourself to him, do you hear? And come to- morrow as. early as you can. You won't run away from me for five days now?" she added slyly, with a caressing glance.

We were all in a state of quiet, unruffled joy.

"Are you coming with me, Vanya?" cried Alyosha as he went out.

"No, he'll stay a little. I've something more to say to you, Vanya. Mind, quite early to-morrow. "

"Quite early. Good-night, Mavra. "

Mavra was in great excitement. She had listened to all the prince said, she had overheard it all, but there was much she had not understood. She was Longing to ask questions, and make surmises. But meantime she looked serious, and even proud. She, too, realized that much was changed.

We remained alone. Natasha took my hand, and for some time was silent, as though seeking for something to say.

"I'm tired," she said at last in a weak voice. " Listen, are you going to them to-morrow?"

"Of course. "

"Tell mamma, but don't speak to him. "

"I never speak of you to him, anyway. "

"Of course; he'll find out without that. But notice what he says. How he takes it. Good heavens, Vanya, will he really curse me for this marriage? No, impossible. "

"The prince will have to make everything right," I put in hurriedly. "They must be reconciled and then everything will go smoothly. "

"My God! If that could only be! If that could only be!" she cried imploringly.

"Don't worry yourself, Natasha, everything will come right. Everything points to it. "

She looked at me intently.

"Vanya, what do you think of the prince?"

"If he was sincere in what he said, then to my thinking he's a really generous man. "

"Sincere in what he said? What does that mean? Surely he couldn't have been speaking insincerely?"

"I agree with you," I answered. "Then some idea did occur to her," I thought. "That's strange!"

"You kept looking at him . . . so intently. "

"Yes, I thought him rather strange. "

"I thought so too. He kept on talking so . . . my dear, I'm tired. You know, you'd better be going home. And come to me to-morrow as early as you can after seeing them. And one other thing: it wasn't rude of me to say that I wanted to get fond of him, was it?"

"No, why rude?"

"And not . . . stupid? You see it was as much as to say that so far I didn't like him. "

"On the contrary, it was very good, simple, spontaneous. You looked so beautiful at that moment! He's stupid if he doesn't understand that, with his aristocratic breeding!"

"You seem as though you were angry with him, Vanya. But how horrid I am, how suspicious, and vain! Don't laugh at me; I hide nothing from you, you know. Ah, Vanya, my dear! If I am unhappy again, if more trouble comes, you'll be here beside me, I know; perhaps you'll be the only one! How can I repay you for everything! Don't curse me ever, Vanya!"

Returning home, I undressed at once and went to bed. My room was as dark and damp as a cellar. Many strange thoughts and sensations were hovering in my mind, and it was long before I could get to sleep.

But how one man must have been laughing at us that moment as he fell asleep in his comfortable bed--that is, if he thought us worth laughing at! Probably he didn't.

Fyodor Dostoevsky