The Idiot/Part II/Chapter X

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The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Eva Martin
Part II/Chapter X

AFTER moistening his lips with the tea which Vera Lebedeff brought him, Hippolyte set the cup down on the table, and glanced round. He seemed confused and almost at a loss.

"Just look, Lizabetha Prokofievna," he began, with a kind of feverish haste; "these china cups are supposed to be extremely valuable. Lebedeff always keeps them locked up in his china-cupboard; they were part of his wife's dowry. Yet he has brought them out tonight—in your honour, of course! He is so pleased—" He was about to add something else, but could not find the words.

"There, he is feeling embarrassed; I expected as much," whispered Evgenie Pavlovitch suddenly in the prince's ear. "It is a bad sign; what do you think? Now, out of spite, he will come out with something so outrageous that even Lizabetha Prokofievna will not be able to stand it."

Muishkin looked at him inquiringly.

"You do not care if he does?" added Evgenie Pavlovitch. "Neither do I; in fact, I should be glad, merely as a proper punishment for our dear Lizabetha Prokofievna. I am very anxious that she should get it, without delay, and I shall stay till she does. You seem feverish."

"Never mind; by-and-by; yes, I am not feeling well," said the prince impatiently, hardly listening. He had just heard Hippolyte mention his own name.

"You don't believe it?" said the invalid, with a nervous laugh. "I don't wonder, but the prince will have no difficulty in believing it; he will not be at all surprised."

"Do you hear, prince—do you hear that?" said Lizabetha Prokofievna, turning towards him.

There was laughter in the group around her, and Lebedeff stood before her gesticulating wildly.

"He declares that your humbug of a landlord revised this gentleman's article—the article that was read aloud just now—in which you got such a charming dressing-down."

The prince regarded Lebedeff with astonishment.

"Why don't you say something?" cried Lizabetha Prokofievna, stamping her foot.

"Well," murmured the prince, with his eyes still fixed on Lebedeff, "I can see now that he did."

"Is it true?" she asked eagerly.

"Absolutely, your excellency," said Lebedeff, without the least hesitation.

Mrs. Epanchin almost sprang up in amazement at his answer, and at the assurance of his tone.

"He actually seems to boast of it!" she cried.

"I am base—base!" muttered Lebedeff, beating his breast, and hanging his head.

"What do I care if you are base or not? He thinks he has only to say, 'I am base,' and there is an end of it. As to you, prince, are you not ashamed?—I repeat, are you not ashamed, to mix with such riff-raff? I will never forgive you!"

"The prince will forgive me!" said Lebedeff with emotional conviction.

Keller suddenly left his seat, and approached Lizabetha. Prokofievna.

"It was only out of generosity, madame," he said in a resonant voice, "and because I would not betray a friend in an awkward position, that I did not mention this revision before; though you heard him yourself threatening to kick us down the steps. To clear the matter up, I declare now that I did have recourse to his assistance, and that I paid him six roubles for it. But I did not ask him to correct my style; I simply went to him for information concerning the facts, of which I was ignorant to a great extent, and which he was competent to give. The story of the gaiters, the appetite in the Swiss professor's house, the substitution of fifty roubles for two hundred and fifty—all such details, in fact, were got from him. I paid him six roubles for them; but he did not correct the style."

"I must state that I only revised the first part of the article," interposed Lebedeff with feverish impatience, while laughter rose from all around him; "but we fell out in the middle over one idea, so I never corrected the second part. Therefore I cannot be held responsible for the numerous grammatical blunders in it."

"That is all he thinks of!" cried Lizabetha Prokofievna.

"May I ask when this article was revised?" said Evgenie Pavlovitch to Keller.

"Yesterday morning," he replied, "we had an interview which we all gave our word of honour to keep secret."

"The very time when he was cringing before you and making protestations of devotion! Oh, the mean wretches! I will have nothing to do with your Pushkin, and your daughter shall not set foot in my house!"

Lizabetha Prokofievna was about to rise, when she saw Hippolyte laughing, and turned upon him with irritation.

"Well, sir, I suppose you wanted to make me look ridiculous?"

"Heaven forbid!" he answered, with a forced smile. "But I am more than ever struck by your eccentricity, Lizabetha Prokofievna. I admit that I told you of Lebedeff's duplicity, on purpose. I knew the effect it would have on you,—on you alone, for the prince will forgive him. He has probably forgiven him already, and is racking his brains to find some excuse for him—is not that the truth, prince?"

He gasped as he spoke, and his strange agitation seemed to increase.

"Well?" said Mrs. Epanchin angrily, surprised at his tone; "well, what more?"

"I have heard many things of the kind about you ...they delighted me... I have learned to hold you in the highest esteem," continued Hippolyte.

His words seemed tinged with a kind of sarcastic mockery, yet he was extremely agitated, casting suspicious glances around him, growing confused, and constantly losing the thread of his ideas. All this, together with his consumptive appearance, and the frenzied expression of his blazing eyes, naturally attracted the attention of everyone present.

"I might have been surprised (though I admit I know nothing of the world), not only that you should have stayed on just now in the company of such people as myself and my friends, who are not of your class, but that you should let these ... young ladies listen to such a scandalous affair, though no doubt novel-reading has taught them all there is to know. I may be mistaken; I hardly know what I am saying; but surely no one but you would have stayed to please a whippersnapper (yes, a whippersnapper; I admit it) to spend the evening and take part in everything—only to be ashamed of it tomorrow. (I know I express myself badly.) I admire and appreciate it all extremely, though the expression on the face of his excellency, your husband, shows that he thinks it very improper. He-he!" He burst out laughing, and was seized with a fit of coughing which lasted for two minutes and prevented him from speaking.

"He has lost his breath now!" said Lizabetha Prokofievna coldly, looking at him with more curiosity than pity: "Come, my dear boy, that is quite enough—let us make an end of this."

Ivan Fedorovitch, now quite out of patience, interrupted suddenly. "Let me remark in my turn, sir," he said in tones of deep annoyance, "that my wife is here as the guest of Prince Lef Nicolaievitch, our friend and neighbour, and that in any case, young man, it is not for you to pass judgment on the conduct of Lizabetha Prokofievna, or to make remarks aloud in my presence concerning what feelings you think may be read in my face. Yes, my wife stayed here," continued the general, with increasing irritation, "more out of amazement than anything else. Everyone can understand that a collection of such strange young men would attract the attention of a person interested in contemporary life. I stayed myself, just as I sometimes stop to look on in the street when I see something that may be regarded as-as-as-"

"As a curiosity," suggested Evgenie Pavlovitch, seeing his excellency involved in a comparison which he could not complete.

"That is exactly the word I wanted," said the general with satisfaction—" a curiosity. However, the most astonishing and, if I may so express myself, the most painful, thing in this matter, is that you cannot even understand, young man, that Lizabetha Prokofievna, only stayed with you because you are ill, —if you really are dying—moved by the pity awakened by your plaintive appeal, and that her name, character, and social position place her above all risk of contamination. Lizabetha Prokofievna!" he continued, now crimson with rage, "if you are coming, we will say goodnight to the prince, and—"

"Thank you for the lesson, general," said Hippolyte, with unexpected gravity, regarding him thoughtfully.

"Two minutes more, if you please, dear Ivan Fedorovitch," said Lizabetha Prokofievna to her husband; "it seems to me that he is in a fever and delirious; you can see by his eyes what a state he is in; it is impossible to let him go back to Petersburg tonight. Can you put him up, Lef Nicolaievitch? I hope you are not bored, dear prince," she added suddenly to Prince S. "Alexandra, my dear, come here! Your hair is coming down."

She arranged her daughter's hair, which was not in the least disordered, and gave her a kiss. This was all that she had called her for.

"I thought you were capable of development," said Hippolyte, coming out of his fit of abstraction. "Yes, that is what I meant to say," he added, with the satisfaction of one who suddenly remembers something he had forgotten. "Here is Burdovsky, sincerely anxious to protect his mother; is not that so? And he himself is the cause of her disgrace. The prince is anxious to help Burdovsky and offers him friendship and a large sum of money, in the sincerity of his heart. And here they stand like two sworn enemies—ha, ha, ha! You all hate Burdovsky because his behaviour with regard to his mother is shocking and repugnant to you; do you not? Is not that true? Is it not true? You all have a passion for beauty and distinction in outward forms; that is all you care for, isn't it? I have suspected for a long time that you cared for nothing else! Well, let me tell you that perhaps there is not one of you who loved your mother as Burdovsky loved his. As to you, prince, I know that you have sent money secretly to Burdovsky's mother through Gania. Well, I bet now," he continued with an hysterical laugh, "that Burdovsky will accuse you of indelicacy, and reproach you with a want of respect for his mother! Yes, that is quite certain! Ha, ha, ha!"

He caught his breath, and began to cough once more.

"Come, that is enough! That is all now; you have no more to say? Now go to bed; you are burning with fever," said Lizabetha Prokofievna impatiently. Her anxious eyes had never left the invalid. "Good heavens, he is going to begin again!"

"You are laughing, I think? Why do you keep laughing at me?" said Hippolyte irritably to Evgenie Pavlovitch, who certainly was laughing.

"I only want to know, Mr. Hippolyte—excuse me, I forget your surname."

"Mr. Terentieff," said the prince.

"Oh yes, Mr. Terentieff. Thank you prince. I heard it just now, but had forgotten it. I want to know, Mr. Terentieff, if what I have heard about you is true. It seems you are convinced that if you could speak to the people from a window for a quarter of an hour, you could make them all adopt your views and follow you?"

"I may have said so," answered Hippolyte, as if trying to remember. "Yes, I certainly said so," he continued with sudden animation, fixing an unflinching glance on his questioner. "What of it?"

"Nothing. I was only seeking further information, to put the finishing touch." Evgenie Pavlovitch was silent, but Hippolyte kept his eyes fixed upon him, waiting impatiently for more.

"Well, have you finished?" said Lizabetha Prokofievna to Evgenie. "Make haste, sir; it is time he went to bed. Have you more to say?" She was very angry.

"Yes, I have a little more," said Evgenie Pavlovitch, with a smile. "It seems to me that all you and your friends have said, Mr. Terentieff, and all you have just put forward with such undeniable talent, may be summed up in the triumph of right above all, independent of everything else, to the exclusion of everything else; perhaps even before having discovered what constitutes the right. I may be mistaken?"

"You are certainly mistaken; I do not even understand you. What else?"

Murmurs arose in the neighbourhood of Burdovsky and his companions; Lebedeff's nephew protested under his breath.

"I have nearly finished," replied Evgenie Pavlovitch.

"I will only remark that from these premisses one could conclude that might is right—I mean the right of the clenched fist, and of personal inclination. Indeed, the world has often come to that conclusion. Prudhon upheld that might is right. In the American War some of the most advanced Liberals took sides with the planters on the score that the blacks were an inferior race to the whites, and that might was the right of the white race."

"Well?"

"You mean, no doubt, that you do not deny that might is right?"

"What then?"

"You are at least logical. I would only point out that from the right of might, to the right of tigers and crocodiles, or even Daniloff and Gorsky, is but a step."

"I know nothing about that; what else?"

Hippolyte was scarcely listening. He kept saying well?" and "what else?" mechanically, without the least curiosity, and by mere force of habit.

"Why, nothing else; that is all."

"However, I bear you no grudge," said Hippolyte suddenly, and, hardly conscious of what he was doing, he held out his hand with a smile. The gesture took Evgenie Pavlovitch by surprise, but with the utmost gravity he touched the hand that was offered him in token of forgiveness.

"I can but thank you," he said, in a tone too respectful to be sincere, "for your kindness in letting me speak, for I have often noticed that our Liberals never allow other people to have an opinion of their own, and immediately answer their opponents with abuse, if they do not have recourse to arguments of a still more unpleasant nature."

"What you say is quite true," observed General Epanchin; then, clasping his hands behind his back, he returned to his place on the terrace steps, where he yawned with an air of boredom.

"Come, sir, that will do; you weary me," said Lizabetha Prokofievna suddenly to Evgenie Pavlovitch.

Hippolyte rose all at once, looking troubled and almost frightened.

"It is time for me to go," he said, glancing round in perplexity. "I have detained you... I wanted to tell you everything... I thought you all ... for the last time ... it was a whim..."

He evidently had sudden fits of returning animation, when he awoke from his semi-delirium; then, recovering full self-possession for a few moments, he would speak, in disconnected phrases which had perhaps haunted him for a long while on his bed of suffering, during weary, sleepless nights.

"Well, good-bye," he said abruptly. "You think it is easy for me to say good-bye to you? Ha, ha!"

Feeling that his question was somewhat gauche, he smiled angrily. Then as if vexed that he could not ever express what he really meant, he said irritably, in a loud voice:

"Excellency, I have the honour of inviting you to my funeral; that is, if you will deign to honour it with your presence. I invite you all, gentlemen, as well as the general."

He burst out laughing again, but it was the laughter of a madman. Lizabetha Prokofievna approached him anxiously and seized his arm. He stared at her for a moment, still laughing, but soon his face grew serious.

"Do you know that I came here to see those trees?" pointing to the trees in the park. "It is not ridiculous, is it? Say that it is not ridiculous!" he demanded urgently of Lizabetha Prokofievna. Then he seemed to be plunged in thought. A moment later he raised his head, and his eyes sought for someone. He was looking for Evgenie Pavlovitch, who was close by on his right as before, but he had forgotten this, and his eyes ranged over the assembled company. "Ah! you have not gone!" he said, when he caught sight of him at last. "You kept on laughing just now, because I thought of speaking to the people from the window for a quarter of an hour. But I am not eighteen, you know; lying on that bed, and looking out of that window, I have thought of all sorts of things for such a long time that ... a dead man has no age, you know. I was saying that to myself only last week, when I was awake in the night. Do you know what you fear most? You fear our sincerity more than anything, although you despise us! The idea crossed my mind that night... You thought I was making fun of you just now, Lizabetha Prokofievna? No, the idea of mockery was far from me; I only meant to praise you. Colia told me the prince called you a child—very well—but let me see, I had something else to say..." He covered his face with his hands and tried to collect his thoughts.

"Ah, yes—you were going away just now, and I thought to myself: 'I shall never see these people again-never again! This is the last time I shall see the trees, too. I shall see nothing after this but the red brick wall of Meyer's house opposite my window. Tell them about it—try to tell them,' I thought. 'Here is a beautiful young girl—you are a dead man; make them understand that. Tell them that a dead man may say anything—and Mrs. Grundy will not be angry—ha-ha! You are not laughing?" He looked anxiously around. "But you know I get so many queer ideas, lying there in bed. I have grown convinced that nature is full of mockery—you called me an atheist just now, but you know this nature ... why are you laughing again? You are very cruel!" he added suddenly, regarding them all with mournful reproach. "I have not corrupted Colia," he concluded in a different and very serious tone, as if remembering something again.

"Nobody here is laughing at you. Calm yourself" said Lizabetha Prokofievna, much moved. "You shall see a new doctor tomorrow; the other was mistaken; but sit down, do not stand like that! You are delirious—Oh, what shall we do with him she cried in anguish, as she made him sit down again in the arm-chair.

A tear glistened on her cheek. At the sight of it Hippolyte seemed amazed. He lifted his hand timidly and, touched the tear with his finger, smiling like a child.

"I ... you," he began joyfully. "You cannot tell how I ... he always spoke so enthusiastically of you, Colia here; I liked his enthusiasm. I was not corrupting him! But I must leave him, too— I wanted to leave them all—there was not one of them—not one! I wanted to be a man of action—I had a right to be. Oh! what a lot of things I wanted! Now I want nothing; I renounce all my wants; I swore to myself that I would want nothing; let them seek the truth without me! Yes, nature is full of mockery! Why"—he continued with sudden warmth—"does she create the choicest beings only to mock at them? The only human being who is recognized as perfect, when nature showed him to mankind, was given the mission to say things which have caused the shedding of so much blood that it would have drowned mankind if it had all been shed at once! Oh! it is better for me to die! I should tell some dreadful lie too; nature would so contrive it! I have corrupted nobody. I wanted to live for the happiness of all men, to find and spread the truth. I used to look out of my window at the wall of Meyer's house, and say to myself that if I could speak for a quarter of an hour I would convince the whole world, and now for once in my life I have come into contact with ... you—if not with the others! And what is the result? Nothing! The sole result is that you despise me! Therefore I must be a fool, I am useless, it is time I disappeared! And I shall leave not even a memory! Not a sound, not a trace, not a single deed! I have not spread a single truth! ... Do not laugh at the fool! Forget him! Forget him forever! I beseech you, do not be so cruel as to remember! Do you know that if I were not consumptive, I would kill myself?"

Though he seemed to wish to say much more, he became silent. He fell back into his chair, and, covering his face with his hands, began to sob like a little child.

"Oh! what on earth are we to do with him?" cried Lizabetha Prokofievna. She hastened to him and pressed his head against her bosom, while he sobbed convulsively.

"Come, come, come! There, you must not cry, that will do. You are a good child! God will forgive you, because you knew no better. Come now, be a man! You know presently you will be ashamed."

Hippolyte raised his head with an effort, saying:

"I have little brothers and sisters, over there, poor avid innocent. She will corrupt them! You are a saint! You are a child yourself—save them! Snatch them from that ... she is ... it is shameful! Oh! help them! God will repay you a hundredfold. For the love of God, for the love of Christ!"

"Speak, Ivan Fedorovitch! What are we to do?" cried Lizabetha Prokofievna, irritably. "Please break your majestic silence! I tell you, if you cannot come to some decision, I will stay here all night myself. You have tyrannized over me enough, you autocrat!"

She spoke angrily, and in great excitement, and expected an immediate reply. But in such a case, no matter how many are present, all prefer to keep silence: no one will take the initiative, but all reserve their comments till afterwards. There were some present—Varvara Ardalionovna, for instance—who would have willingly sat there till morning without saying a word. Varvara had sat apart all the evening without opening her lips, but she listened to everything with the closest attention; perhaps she had her reasons for so doing.

"My dear," said the general, "it seems to me that a sick-nurse would be of more use here than an excitable person like you. Perhaps it would be as well to get some sober, reliable man for the night. In any case we must consult the prince, and leave the patient to rest at once. Tomorrow we can see what can be done for him."

"It is nearly midnight; we are going. Will he come with us, or is he to stay here?" Doktorenko asked crossly of the prince.

"You can stay with him if you like," said Muishkin.

"There is plenty of room here."

Suddenly, to the astonishment of all, Keller went quickly up to the general.

"Excellency," he said, impulsively, "if you want a reliable man for the night, I am ready to sacrifice myself for my friend—such a soul as he has! I have long thought him a great man, excellency! My article showed my lack of education, but when he criticizes he scatters pearls!"

Ivan Fedorovitch turned from the boxer with a gesture of despair.

"I shall be delighted if he will stay; it would certainly be difficult for him to get back to Petersburg," said the prince, in answer to the eager questions of Lizabetha Prokofievna.

"But you are half asleep, are you not? If you don't want him, I will take him back to my house! Why, good gracious! He can hardly stand up himself! What is it? Are you ill?"

Not finding the prince on his death-bed, Lizabetha Prokofievna had been misled by his appearance to think him much better than he was. But his recent illness, the painful memories attached to it, the fatigue of this evening, the incident with "Pavlicheff's son," and now this scene with Hippolyte, had all so worked on his oversensitive nature that he was now almost in a fever. Moreover, anew trouble, almost a fear, showed itself in his eyes; he watched Hippolyte anxiously as if expecting something further.

Suddenly Hippolyte arose. His face, shockingly pale, was that of a man overwhelmed with shame and despair. This was shown chiefly in the look of fear and hatred which he cast upon the assembled company, and in the wild smile upon his trembling lips. Then he cast down his eyes, and with the same smile, staggered towards Burdovsky and Doktorenko, who stood at the entrance to the verandah. He had decided to go with them.

"There! that is what I feared!" cried the prince. "It was inevitable!"

Hippolyte turned upon him, a prey to maniacal rage, which set all the muscles of his face quivering.

"Ah! that is what you feared! It was inevitable, you say! Well, let me tell you that if I hate anyone here—I hate you all," he cried, in a hoarse, strained voice-" but you, you, with your jesuitical soul, your soul of sickly sweetness, idiot, beneficent millionaire—I hate you worse than anything or anyone on earth! I saw through you and hated you long ago; from the day I first heard of you. I hated you with my whole heart. You have contrived all this! You have driven me into this state! You have made a dying man disgrace himself. You, you, you are the cause of my abject cowardice! I would kill you if I remained alive! I do not want your benefits; I will accept none from anyone; do you hear? Not from any one! I want nothing! I was delirious, do not dare to triumph! I curse every one of you, once for all!"

Breath failed him here, and he was obliged to stop.

"He is ashamed of his tears!" whispered Lebedeff to Lizabetha Prokofievna. "It was inevitable. Ah! what a wonderful man the prince is! He read his very soul."

But Mrs. Epanchin would not deign to look at Lebedeff. Drawn up haughtily, with her head held high, she gazed at the "riff-raff," with scornful curiosity. When Hippolyte had finished, Ivan Fedorovitch shrugged his shoulders, and his wife looked him angrily up and down, as if to demand the meaning of his movement. Then she turned to the prince.

"Thanks, prince, many thanks, eccentric friend of the family, for the pleasant evening you have provided for us. I am sure you are quite pleased that you have managed to mix us up with your extraordinary affairs. It is quite enough, dear family friend; thank you for giving us an opportunity of getting to know you so well."

She arranged her cloak with hands that trembled with anger as she waited for the "riff-raff "to go. The cab which Lebedeff's son had gone to fetch a quarter of an hour ago, by Doktorenko's order, arrived at that moment. The general thought fit to put in a word after his wife.

"Really, prince, I hardly expected after—after all our friendly intercourse— and you see, Lizabetha Prokofievna—"

"Papa, how can you?" cried Adelaida, walking quickly up to the prince and holding out her hand.

He smiled absently at her; then suddenly he felt a burning sensation in his ear as an angry voice whispered:

"If you do not turn those dreadful people out of the house this very instant, I shall hate you all my life—all my life!" It was Aglaya. She seemed almost in a frenzy, but she turned away before the prince could look at her. However, there was no one left to turn out of the house, for they had managed meanwhile to get Hippolyte into the cab, and it had driven off.

"Well, how much longer is this going to last, Ivan Fedorovitch? What do you think? Shall I soon be delivered from these odious youths?"

"My dear, I am quite ready; naturally ... the prince."

Ivan Fedorovitch held out his hand to Muishkin, but ran after his wife, who was leaving with every sign of violent indignation, before he had time to shake it. Adelaida, her fiance, and Alexandra, said good-bye to their host with sincere friendliness. Evgenie Pavlovitch did the same, and he alone seemed in good spirits.

"What I expected has happened! But I am sorry, you poor fellow, that you should have had to suffer for it," he murmured, with a most charming smile.

Aglaya left without saying good-bye. But the evening was not to end without a last adventure. An unexpected meeting was yet in store for Lizabetha Prokofievna.

She had scarcely descended the terrace steps leading to the high road that skirts the park at Pavlofsk, when suddenly there dashed by a smart open carriage, drawn by a pair of beautiful white horses. Having passed some ten yards beyond the house, the carriage suddenly drew up, and one of the two ladies seated in it turned sharp round as though she had just caught sight of some acquaintance whom she particularly wished to see.

"Evgenie Pavlovitch! Is that you?" cried a clear, sweet voice, which caused the prince, and perhaps someone else, to tremble. "Well, I AM glad I've found you at last! I've sent to town for you twice today myself! My messengers have been searching for you everywhere!"

Evgenie Pavlovitch stood on the steps like one struck by lightning. Mrs. Epanchin stood still too, but not with the petrified expression of Evgenie. She gazed haughtily at the audacious person who had addressed her companion, and then turned a look of astonishment upon Evgenie himself.

"There's news!" continued the clear voice. "You need not be anxious about Kupferof's IOU's—Rogojin has bought them up. I persuaded him to!—I dare say we shall settle Biscup too, so it's all right, you see! Au revoir, tomorrow! And don't worry!" The carriage moved on, and disappeared.

"The woman's mad!" cried Evgenie, at last, crimson with anger, and looking confusedly around. "I don't know what she's talking about! What IOU's? Who is she?" Mrs. Epanchin continued to watch his face for a couple of seconds; then she marched briskly and haughtily away towards her own house, the rest following her.

A minute afterwards, Evgenie Pavlovitch reappeared on the terrace, in great agitation.

"Prince," he said, "tell me the truth; do you know what all this means?"

"I know nothing whatever about it!" replied the latter, who was, himself, in a state of nervous excitement.

"No?"

"No?

"Well, nor do I!" said Evgenie Pavlovitch, laughing suddenly. "I haven't the slightest knowledge of any such IOU's as she mentioned, I swear I haven't—What's the matter, are you fainting?"

"Oh, no-no-I'm all right, I assure you!"