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Chapter 37

I won't attempt to describe my exasperation. Though I might have expected anything, it was a blow; it was as though he had appeared before me quite suddenly in all his hideousness. But I remember my sensations were confused, as though I had been knocked down, crushed by something, and black misery gnawed more and more painfully at my heart. I was afraid for Natasha. I foresaw much suffering for her in the future, and I cast about in perplexity for some way by which to avoid it, to soften these last moments for her, before the final catastrophe. Of that catastrophe there could be no doubt. It was near at hand, and it was impossible not to see the form it would take.

I did not notice how I reached home, though I was getting wet with the rain all the way. It was three o'clock in the morning. I had hardly knocked at the door of my room when I heard a moan, and the door was hurriedly unlocked, as though Nellie had not gone to bed but had been watching for me all the time at the door. There was a candle alight. I glanced into Nellie's face and was dismayed; it was completely transformed; her eyes were burning as though in fever, and had a wild look as though she did not recognize me. She was in a high fever.

"Nellie, what's the matter, are you ill?" I asked, bending down and putting my arm round her.

She nestled up to me tremulously as though she were afraid of something, said something, rapidly and impetuously, as though she had only been waiting for me to come to tell me it. But her words were strange and incoherent; I could understand nothing. She was in delirium.

I led her quickly to bed. But she kept starting up and clinging to me as though in terror, as though begging me to protect her from someone, and even when she was lying in bed she kept seizing my hand and holding it tightly as though afraid that I might go away again. I was so upset and my nerves were so shaken that I actually began to cry as I looked at her. I was ill myself. Seeing my tears she looked fixedly at me for some time with strained, concentrated attention, as though trying to grasp and understand something. It was evident that this cost her great effort. At last something like a thought was apparent in her face. After a violent epileptic fit she was usually for some time unable to collect her thoughts or to articulate distinctly. And so it was now. After making an immense effort to say something to me and realizing that I did not understand, she held out her little hand and began to wipe away my tears, then put her arm round my neck, drew me down to her and kissed me.

It was clear that she had had a fit in my absence, and it had taken place at the moment when she had been standing at the door. Probably on recovery she had been for a long time unable come to herself. At such times reality is mixed up with delirium and she had certainly imagined something awful, some horror. At the same time she must have been dimly aware that I was to come back and should knock at the door, and so, lying right in the doorway on the floor, she had been on the alert for my coming and had stood up at my first tap.

"But why was she just at the door," I wondered, and suddenly I noticed with amazement that she was wearing her little wadded coat. (I had just got it for her from an old pedlar woman I knew who sometimes came to my room to offer me goods in repayment of money I had lent her.) So she must have been meaning to go out, and had probably been already unlocking the door when she was suddenly struck down by the fit. Where could she have been meaning to go? Was she already in delirium?

Meanwhile the fever did not leave her, and she soon sank into delirium and unconsciousness. She had twice already had a fit in my flat, but it had always passed off harmlessly; now, however, she seemed in a high fever. After sitting beside her for half an hour I pushed a chair up to the sofa and lay down, as I was, without undressing, close beside her that I might wake the more readily if she called me. I did not even put the candle out. I looked at her many times again before I fell asleep myself. She was pale; her lips were parched with fever and stained with blood, probably from the fall. Her face still retained the look of terror and a sort of poignant anguish which seemed to be still haunting her in her sleep, I made up my mind to go as early as possible next morning for the doctor, if she were worse. I was afraid that it might end in actual brain fever.

"It must have been the prince frightened her!" I thought, with a shudder, and I thought of his story of the woman who had thrown the money in his face.

Fyodor Dostoevsky