Twilight had fallen, the evening had come on before I roused myself from the gloomy nightmare and came back to the present.
"Nellie," I said, "you're ill and upset, and I must leave you alone, in tears and distress. My dear! Forgive me, and let me tell you that there's someone else who has been loved and not forgiven, who is unhappy, insulted and forsaken. She is expecting me. And I feel drawn to her now after your story, so that I can't bear not to see her at once, this very minute."
I don't know whether she understood all that I said. I was upset both by her story and by my illness, but I rushed to Natasha's. It was late, nine o'clock, when I arrived.
In the street I noticed a carriage at the gate of the house where Natasha lodged, and I fancied that it was the prince's carriage. The entry was across the courtyard. As soon as I began to mount the stairs I heard, a flight above me, someone carefully feeling his way, evidently unfamiliar with the place. I imagined this must be the prince, but I soon began to doubt it. The stranger kept grumbling and cursing the stairs as he climbed up, his language growing stronger and more violent as he proceeded. Of course the staircase was narrow, filthy, steep, and never lighted; but the language I heard on the third floor was such that I could not believe it to be the prince: the ascending gentleman was swearing like a cabman. But there was a glimmer of light on the third floor; a little lamp was burning at Natasha's door. I overtook the stranger at the door, and what was my astonishment when I recognized him as Prince Valkovsky! I fancied he was extremely annoyed at running up against me so unexpectedly. At the first moment he did not recognize me, but suddenly his whole face changed. His first glance of anger and hatred relaxed into an affable, good-humoured expression, and he held out both hands to me with extraordinary delight.
"Ach, that's you! And I was just about to kneel down to thank God my life was safe! Did you hear me swearing?"
And he laughed in the most good-natured way. But suddenly his face assumed an earnest and anxious expression.
"How could Alyosha let Natalya Nikolaevna live in such a place!" he said, shaking his head. "It's just these so-called trifles that show what a man's made of. I'm anxious about him. He is good-natured, he has a generous heart, but here you have an example: he's frantically in love, yet he puts the girl he loves in a hole like this. I've even heard she has sometimes been short of food," he added in a whisper, feeling for the bell handle. "My head aches when I think about his future and still more of the future of Anna Nikolaevna when she is his wife. . .
He used the wrong name, and did not notice it in his evident vexation at not finding the bell handle. But there was no bell. I tugged at the door handle and Mavra at once opened the door to us, and met us fussily. In the kitchen, which was divided off from the tiny entry by a wooden screen, through an open door some preparations could be seen; everything seemed somehow different from usual, cleaned and polished; there was a fire in the stove, and some new crockery on the table. It was evident that we were expected. Mavra flew to help us off with our coats.
"Is Alyosha here?" I asked her.
"He has not been," she whispered mysteriously. We went in to Natasha. There was no sign of special preparation in her room. Everything was as usual. But everything in her room was always so neat and charming that there was no need to arrange it. Natasha met us, facing the door. I was struck by the wasted look in her face, and its extreme pallor, though there was a flush of colour for a moment on her wan cheeks. Her eyes were feverish. Hastily she held out her hand to the prince without speaking, visibly confused and agitated. She did not even glance at me. I stood and waited in silence.
"Here I am!" said the prince with friendly gaiety. "I've only been back a few hours. You've never been out of my mind all these days" (he kissed her hand tenderly) "and how much, how much I have thought about you. How much I have thought of to say to you.... Well, we can talk to our hearts' content! In the first place my feather headed youngster who is not here yet . . ."
"Excuse me, prince," Natasha interrupted, flushing and embarrassed, "I have to say a word to Ivan Petrovitch. Vanya, come along ... two words. . ."
She seized my hand and drew me behind the screen.
"Vanya," she said in a whisper, leading me to the furthest comer, "will you forgive me?"
"Hush, Natasha, what do you mean?"
"No, no, Vanya, you have forgiven me too much, and too often. But there's an end to all patience. You will never leave off caring for me, I know. But you'll call me ungrateful. And I was ungrateful to you yesterday and the day before yesterday, selfish, cruel . . ."
She suddenly burst into tears and pressed her face on my shoulder.
"Hush, Natasha," I hastened to reassure her. "I've been very ill all night, and I can hardly stand now; that's why I didn't come yesterday or today, and you've been thinking I was angry. Dearest, do you suppose I don't understand what's going on in your heart now?"
"Well, that's right then ... then you've forgiven me as you always do," she said, smiling through her tears, and squeezing my hand till it hurt. "The rest later. I've a lot I must say to you, Vanya. But now come back to him..."
"Make haste, Natasha, we left him so suddenly..."
"You'll see, you'll see what's coming directly," she whispered to me. "Now I understand it all, I see through it all. It's all his doing. A great deal will be decided this evening. Come along!"
I didn't understand, but there was no time to ask. Natasha came up to the prince with a serene expression. He was still standing with his hat in his hand. She apologized good humouredly, took his hat from him, moved up a chair for him and we three sat down round her little table.
"I was beginning about my feather headed boy," the prince went on. "I've only seen him for a moment and that was in the street when he was getting into his carriage to drive to the Countess Zinaida Fyodorovna. He was in a terrible hurry and, would you believe it, wouldn't even stop to come to my room, after four days of absence, and I believe it's my fault, Natalya Nikolaevna, that he's not here and that we've arrived before him. I seized the chance. As I couldn't be at the countess's myself today, I gave him a message to her. But he will be here in a minute or two."
"I supposed he promised you to come today?" asked Natasha, looking at the prince with a look of perfect simplicity.
"Good heavens, as though he wouldn't have come anyway! How can you ask!" he exclaimed, looking at her in wonder. I understand though, you are angry with him. Indeed, it does seem wrong of him to be the last to come. But I repeat that it's my fault. Don't be angry with him. He's shallow, frivolous I don't defend him, but certain special circumstances make it necessary that he should not give up the countess and some other connexions, but, on the contrary, should go to see them as often as possible. And as now he never leaves your side, I expect, and has forgotten everything else on earth, please do not be angry if I sometimes take him off for an hour or two, not more, to do things for me. I dare say he has not been to see Princess A. once since that evening, and I'm vexed that I have not had time to question him yet! . . ."
I glanced towards Natasha. She was listening to Prince Valkovsky with a slight, half-mocking smile. But he spoke so frankly, so naturally. It seemed impossible to suspect him.
"And did you really not know that he has not been near me all these days?" asked Natasha in a quiet and gentle voice, as though she were talking of the most ordinary matter.
"What? not been here once? Good heavens, what are you saying!" said the prince, apparently in extreme astonishment.
"You were with me late on Tuesday evening. Next morning he came in to see me for half an hour, and I've not seen him once since then."
"But that's incredible! (He was more and more astonished.) "I expected that he would never leave your side, Excuse me, this is so strange ... it's simply beyond belief."
"But it's true, though, and I'm so sorry. I was looking forward to seeing you. I was expecting to learn from you where he has been."
"Upon my soul! But he'll be here directly. But what you tell me is such a surprise to me that ... I confess I was prepared for anything from him, but this, this!"
"How it surprises you! While I thought that, so far from being surprised, you knew beforehand that it would be so."
"Knew! I? But I assure you, Natalya Nikolaevna, that I've only seen him for one moment today, and I've questioned no one about him. And it strikes me as odd that you don't seem to believe me," he went on, scanning us both.
"God forbid! " Natasha exclaimed. "I'm quite convinced that what you say is true."
And she laughed again, right in Prince Valkovsky's face, so that he almost winced.
"Explain yourself!" he said in confusion.
"Why, there's nothing to explain. I speak very simply. You know how heedless and forgetful he is. And now that he has been given complete liberty he is carried away."
"But to be carried away like that is impossible. There something behind it, and as soon as he comes in I'll make him explain what it is. But what surprises me most of all is that you seem to think me somehow to blame, when I've not even been here. But I see, Natalya Nikolaevna, that you are very angry with him--and I can quite understand. You've every right to be so, and of course I'm the first person to blame if only that I'm the first to turn up. That's how it is, isn't it?" he went on, turning to me, with angry derision.
Natasha flushed red.
"Certainly, Natalya Nikolaevna," he continued with dignity.
"I'll admit I am to blame, but only for going away the day after I made your acquaintance; so with the suspiciousness of character I observe in you, you have already changed your opinion of me circumstances, of course, have given some grounds for this. Had I not gone away, you would have known me better, and Alyosha would not have been so heedless with me to look after him. You shall hear yourself what I say to him this evening."
"That is, you'll manage to make him begin to feel me a burden. Surely, with your cleverness, you can't imagine that that would be any help to me."
"Do you mean to hint that I would intentionally try to make him feel you a burden? You insult me, Natalya Nikolaevna."
"I try to speak without hints when I can, whoever the person may be I am speaking to," answered Natasha. "I always try, on the contrary, to be as open as I can, and you will perhaps be convinced of that this evening. I don't wish to insult you and there's no reason I should; if only because you won't be insulted by my words, whatever I may say. Of that I am quite certain, for I quite realize the relation in which we stand to one another. You can't take it seriously, can you? But if I really have been rude to you, I am ready to ask your pardon that I may not be lacking in any of the obligations of ... hospitality."
In spite of the light and even jesting tone with which she uttered these words, and the smile on her lips, I had never seen Natasha so intensely irritated. It was only now that I realized what her heartache must have been during those three days. Her enigmatic saying that she knew everything now and that she guessed it all frightened me; it referred directly to Prince Valkovsky. She had changed her opinion of him and looked upon him as her enemy; that was evident. She apparently attributed her discomfiture with Alyosha to his influence and had perhaps some grounds for this belief. I was afraid there might be a scene between them at any moment. Her mocking tone was too manifest, too undisguised. Her last words to the prince that he could not take their relations seriously, the phrase about the obligations of hospitality, her promise, that looked like a threat, to show him that she knew how to be open--all this was so biting, so unmistakable, that it was impossible that the prince should not understand it. I saw his face change, but he was well able to control himself. He at once pretended not to have noticed these words, not to have seen their significance, and took refuge course in raillery.
"God forbid I should ask for apologies!" he cried, laughing.
That's not at all what I wanted, and indeed it's against my rules to ask apologies from a woman. At our first interview I warned you what I was like, so you're not likely to be angry with me for one observation, especially as it applies to all women. You probably agree with this remark," he went on, politely turning to me. "I have noticed as a trait in the female character that if woman is in fault in any way, she will sooner smooth over her offence with a thousand caresses later on than admit her fault and ask forgiveness at the moment when she is confronted with it. And so, supposing even that I have been insulted by you, I am not anxious for an apology. It will be all the better for me later on when you own your mistake and want to make it up to me ... with a thousand caresses. And you are so sweet, so pure, so fresh, so open, that the moment of your penitence will, I foresee, be enchanting. You had better, instead of apologizing, tell me now whether I cannot do something this evening to show you that I am behaving much more sincerely and straight forwardly than you suppose."
Natasha flushed. I, too, fancied that there was somewhat too flippant, even too casual, a tone in Prince Valkovsky's answer, a rather unseemly jocosity.
"You want to prove that you are simple and straightforward with me?" asked Natasha, looking at him with a challenging air.
"If so, do what I ask."
"I promise beforehand."
"And that is, not by one word, one hint, to worry Alyosha about me, either today or tomorrow. No reproof for having forgotten me; no remonstrance. I want to meet him as though nothing had happened, so that he may notice nothing. That's what I want. Will you make me such a promise?"
"With the greatest pleasure," answered Prince Valkovsky and allow me to add with all my heart that I have rarely met more sensible and clear sighted attitude in such circumstances... But I believe this is Alyosha."
A sound was in fact heard in the passage. Natasha started and seemed to prepare herself for something, Prince Valkovsky sat with a serious face waiting to see what would happen. He watching Natasha intently. But the door opened and Alyosha flew in.
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