THE prince understood at last why he shivered with dread every time he thought of the three letters in his pocket, and why he had put off reading them until the evening.
When he fell into a heavy sleep on the sofa on the verandah, without having had the courage to open a single one of the three envelopes, he again dreamed a painful dream, and once more that poor, “sinful” woman appeared to him. Again she gazed at him with tears sparkling on her long lashes, and beckoned him after her; and again he awoke, as before, with the picture of her face haunting him.
He longed to get up and go to her at once—but he COULD NOT. At length, almost in despair, he unfolded the letters, and began to read them.
These letters, too, were like a dream. We sometimes have strange, impossible dreams, contrary to all the laws of nature. When we awake we remember them and wonder at their strangeness. You remember, perhaps, that you were in full possession of your reason during this succession of fantastic images; even that you acted with extraordinary logic and cunning while surrounded by murderers who hid their intentions and made great demonstrations of friendship, while waiting for an opportunity to cut your throat. You remember how you escaped them by some ingenious stratagem; then you doubted if they were really deceived, or whether they were only pretending not to know your hiding-place; then you thought of another plan and hoodwinked them once again. You remember all this quite clearly, but how is it that your reason calmly accepted all the manifest absurdities and impossibilities that crowded into your dream? One of the murderers suddenly changed into a woman before your very eyes; then the woman was transformed into a hideous, cunning little dwarf; and you believed it, and accepted it all almost as a matter of course—while at the same time your intelligence seemed unusually keen, and accomplished miracles of cunning, sagacity, and logic! Why is it that when you awake to the world of realities you nearly always feel, sometimes very vividly, that the vanished dream has carried with it some enigma which you have failed to solve? You smile at the extravagance of your dream, and yet you feel that this tissue of absurdity contained some real idea, something that belongs to your true life,—something that exists, and has always existed, in your heart. You search your dream for some prophecy that you were expecting. It has left a deep impression upon you, joyful or cruel, but what it means, or what has been predicted to you in it, you can neither understand nor remember.
The reading of these letters produced some such effect upon the prince. He felt, before he even opened the envelopes, that the very fact of their existence was like a nightmare. How could she ever have made up her mind to write to her? he asked himself. How could she write about that at all? And how could such a wild idea have entered her head? And yet, the strangest part of the matter was, that while he read the letters, he himself almost believed in the possibility, and even in the justification, of the idea he had thought so wild. Of course it was a mad dream, a nightmare, and yet there was something cruelly real about it. For hours he was haunted by what he had read. Several passages returned again and again to his mind, and as he brooded over them, he felt inclined to say to himself that he had foreseen and known all that was written here; it even seemed to him that he had read the whole of this some time or other, long, long ago; and all that had tormented and grieved him up to now was to be found in these old, long since read, letters.
“When you open this letter” (so the first began), “look first at the signature. The signature will tell you all, so that I need explain nothing, nor attempt to justify myself. Were I in any way on a footing with you, you might be offended at my audacity; but who am I, and who are you? We are at such extremes, and I am so far removed from you, that I could not offend you if I wished to do so.”
Farther on, in another place, she wrote: “Do not consider my words as the sickly ecstasies of a diseased mind, but you are, in my opinion—perfection! I have seen you—I see you every day. I do not judge you; I have not weighed you in the scales of Reason and found you Perfection—it is simply an article of faith. But I must confess one sin against you—I love you. One should not love perfection. One should only look on it as perfection—yet I am in love with you. Though love equalizes, do not fear. I have not lowered you to my level, even in my most secret thoughts. I have written ‘Do not fear,’ as if you could fear. I would kiss your footprints if I could; but, oh! I am not putting myself on a level with you!—Look at the signature—quick, look at the signature!”
“However, observe” (she wrote in another of the letters), “that although I couple you with him, yet I have not once asked you whether you love him. He fell in love with you, though he saw you but once. He spoke of you as of ‘the light.’ These are his own words—I heard him use them. But I understood without his saying it that you were all that light is to him. I lived near him for a whole month, and I understood then that you, too, must love him. I think of you and him as one.”
“What was the matter yesterday?” (she wrote on another sheet). “I passed by you, and you seemed to me to BLUSH. Perhaps it was only my fancy. If I were to bring you to the most loathsome den, and show you the revelation of undisguised vice—you should not blush. You can never feel the sense of personal affront. You may hate all who are mean, or base, or unworthy—but not for yourself—only for those whom they wrong. No one can wrong YOU. Do you know, I think you ought to love me—for you are the same in my eyes as in his-you are as light. An angel cannot hate, perhaps cannot love, either. I often ask myself—is it possible to love everybody? Indeed it is not; it is not in nature. Abstract love of humanity is nearly always love of self. But you are different. You cannot help loving all, since you can compare with none, and are above all personal offence or anger. Oh! how bitter it would be to me to know that you felt anger or shame on my account, for that would be your fall—you would become comparable at once with such as me.
“Yesterday, after seeing you, I went home and thought out a picture.
“Artists always draw the Saviour as an actor in one of the Gospel stories. I should do differently. I should represent Christ alone—the disciples did leave Him alone occasionally. I should paint one little child left with Him. This child has been playing about near Him, and had probably just been telling the Saviour something in its pretty baby prattle. Christ had listened to it, but was now musing—one hand reposing on the child’s bright head. His eyes have a far-away expression. Thought, great as the Universe, is in them—His face is sad. The little one leans its elbow upon Christ’s knee, and with its cheek resting on its hand, gazes up at Him, pondering as children sometimes do ponder. The sun is setting. There you have my picture.
“You are innocent—and in your innocence lies all your perfection—oh, remember that! What is my passion to you?—you are mine now; I shall be near you all my life—I shall not live long!”
At length, in the last letter of all, he found:
“For Heaven’s sake, don’t misunderstand me! Do not think that I humiliate myself by writing thus to you, or that I belong to that class of people who take a satisfaction in humiliating themselves—from pride. I have my consolation, though it would be difficult to explain it—but I do not humiliate myself.
“Why do I wish to unite you two? For your sakes or my own? For my own sake, naturally. All the problems of my life would thus be solved; I have thought so for a long time. I know that once when your sister Adelaida saw my portrait she said that such beauty could overthrow the world. But I have renounced the world. You think it strange that I should say so, for you saw me decked with lace and diamonds, in the company of drunkards and wastrels. Take no notice of that; I know that I have almost ceased to exist. God knows what it is dwelling within me now—it is not myself. I can see it every day in two dreadful eyes which are always looking at me, even when not present. These eyes are silent now, they say nothing; but I know their secret. His house is gloomy, and there is a secret in it. I am convinced that in some box he has a razor hidden, tied round with silk, just like the one that Moscow murderer had. This man also lived with his mother, and had a razor hidden away, tied round with white silk, and with this razor he intended to cut a throat.
“All the while I was in their house I felt sure that somewhere beneath the floor there was hidden away some dreadful corpse, wrapped in oil-cloth, perhaps buried there by his father, who knows? Just as in the Moscow case. I could have shown you the very spot!
“He is always silent, but I know well that he loves me so much that he must hate me. My wedding and yours are to be on the same day; so I have arranged with him. I have no secrets from him. I would kill him from very fright, but he will kill me first. He has just burst out laughing, and says that I am raving. He knows I am writing to you.”
There was much more of this delirious wandering in the letters— one of them was very long.
At last the prince came out of the dark, gloomy park, in which he had wandered about for hours just as yesterday. The bright night seemed to him to be lighter than ever. “It must be quite early,” he thought. (He had forgotten his watch.) There was a sound of distant music somewhere. “Ah,” he thought, “the Vauxhall! They won’t be there today, of course!” At this moment he noticed that he was close to their house; he had felt that he must gravitate to this spot eventually, and, with a beating heart, he mounted the verandah steps.
No one met him; the verandah was empty, and nearly pitch dark. He opened the door into the room, but it, too, was dark and empty. He stood in the middle of the room in perplexity. Suddenly the door opened, and in came Alexandra, candle in hand. Seeing the prince she stopped before him in surprise, looking at him questioningly.
It was clear that she had been merely passing through the room from door to door, and had not had the remotest notion that she would meet anyone.
“How did you come here?” she asked, at last.
“Mamma is not very well, nor is Aglaya. Adelaida has gone to bed, and I am just going. We were alone the whole evening. Father and Prince S. have gone to town.”
“I have come to you—now—to—”
“Do you know what time it is?”
“Half-past twelve. We are always in bed by one.”
“I-I thought it was half-past nine!”
“Never mind!” she laughed, “but why didn’t you come earlier? Perhaps you were expected!”
“I thought” he stammered, making for the door.
“Au revoir! I shall amuse them all with this story tomorrow!”
He walked along the road towards his own house. His heart was beating, his thoughts were confused, everything around seemed to be part of a dream.
And suddenly, just as twice already he had awaked from sleep with the same vision, that very apparition now seemed to rise up before him. The woman appeared to step out from the park, and stand in the path in front of him, as though she had been waiting for him there.
He shuddered and stopped; she seized his hand and pressed it frenziedly.
No, this was no apparition!
There she stood at last, face to face with him, for the first time since their parting.
She said something, but he looked silently back at her. His heart ached with anguish. Oh! never would he banish the recollection of this meeting with her, and he never remembered it but with the same pain and agony of mind.
She went on her knees before him—there in the open road—like a madwoman. He retreated a step, but she caught his hand and kissed it, and, just as in his dream, the tears were sparkling on her long, beautiful lashes.
“Get up!” he said, in a frightened whisper, raising her. “Get up at once!”
“Are you happy—are you happy?” she asked. “Say this one word. Are you happy now? Today, this moment? Have you just been with her? What did she say?”
She did not rise from her knees; she would not listen to him; she put her questions hurriedly, as though she were pursued.
“I am going away tomorrow, as you bade me—I won’t write—so that this is the last time I shall see you, the last time! This is really the LAST TIME!”
“Oh, be calm—be calm! Get up!” he entreated, in despair.
She gazed thirstily at him and clutched his hands.
“Good-bye!” she said at last, and rose and left him, very quickly.
The prince noticed that Rogojin had suddenly appeared at her side, and had taken her arm and was leading her away.
“Wait a minute, prince,” shouted the latter, as he went. “I shall be back in five minutes.”
He reappeared in five minutes as he had said. The prince was waiting for him.
“I’ve put her in the carriage,” he said; “it has been waiting round the corner there since ten o’clock. She expected that you would be with THEM all the evening. I told her exactly what you wrote me. She won’t write to the girl any more, she promises; and tomorrow she will be off, as you wish. She desired to see you for the last time, although you refused, so we’ve been sitting and waiting on that bench till you should pass on your way home.”
“Did she bring you with her of her own accord?”
“Of course she did!” said Rogojin, showing his teeth; “and I saw for myself what I knew before. You’ve read her letters, I suppose?”
“Did you read them?” asked the prince, struck by the thought.
“Of course—she showed them to me herself. You are thinking of the razor, eh? Ha, ha, ha!”
“Oh, she is mad!” cried the prince, wringing his hands. “Who knows? Perhaps she is not so mad after all,” said Rogojin, softly, as though thinking aloud.
The prince made no reply.
“Well, good-bye,” said Rogojin. “I’m off tomorrow too, you know. Remember me kindly! By-the-by,” he added, turning round sharply again, “did you answer her question just now? Are you happy, or not?”
“No, no, no!” cried the prince, with unspeakable sadness.
“Ha, ha! I never supposed you would say ‘yes,’” cried Rogojin, laughing sardonically.
And he disappeared, without looking round again.