Litvinov went quickly up the staircase of the Hôtel de l'Europe; a little girl of thirteen, with a sly little face of Kalmuck cast, who had apparently been on the look-out for him, stopped him, saying in Russian: 'Come this way, please; Irina Pavlovna will be here directly.' He looked at her in perplexity. She smiled, repeated: 'Come along, come along,' and led him to a small room, facing Irina's bedroom, and filled with travelling trunks and portmanteaus, then at once disappeared, closing the door very softly. Litvinov had not time to look about him, before the door was quickly opened, and before him in a pink ball-dress, with diamonds in her hair and on her neck, stood Irina. She simply rushed at him, clutched him by both hands, and for a few instants was speechless; her eyes were shining, and her bosom heaving as though she had run up to a height.
'I could not receive . . . you there,' she began in a hurried whisper: 'we are just going to a dinner party, but I wanted above everything to see you. . . . That is your betrothed, I suppose, with whom I met you to-day?'
'Yes, that was my betrothed,' said Litvinov, with emphasis on the word 'was.'
'And so I wanted to see you for one minute, to tell you that you must consider yourself absolutely free, that everything that happened yesterday ought not to affect your plans. . . .'
'Irina!' cried Litvinov, 'why are you saying this?' He uttered these words in a loud voice. There was the note in them of unbounded passion. Irina involuntarily closed her eyes for a minute.
'Oh, my sweet one!' she went on in a whisper still more subdued, but with unrestrained emotion, 'you don't know how I love you, but yesterday I only paid my debt, I made up for the past. . . . Ah! I could not give you back my youth, as I would, but I have laid no obligations on you, I have exacted no promise of any sort of you, my sweet! Do what you will, you are free as air, you are bound in no way, understand that, understand that!'
'But I can't live without you, Irina,' Litvinov interrupted, in a whisper now; 'I am yours for ever and always, since yesterday. . . . I can only breathe at your feet. . . .'
He stooped down all in a tremble to kiss her hands. Irina gazed at his bent head.
'Then let me say,'she said, 'that I too am ready for anything, that I too will consider no one, and nothing. As you decide, so it shall be. I, too, am for ever yours . . . yours.'
Some one tapped warily at the door. Irina stooped, whispered once more, 'Yours . . . good-bye!' Litvinov felt her breath on his hair, the touch of her lips. When he stood up, she was no longer in the room, but her dress was rustling in the corridor, and from the distance came the voice of Ratmirov: ' Eh bien? Vous ne venez pas? '
Litvinov sat down on a high chest, and hid his face. A feminine fragrance, fresh and delicate, clung about him. . . . Irina had held his hand in her hands. 'It 's too much, too much,' was his thought. The little girl came into the room, and smiling again in response to his agitated glance, said:
'Kindly come, now——'
He got up, and went out of the hotel. It was no good even to think of returning home: he had to regain his balance first. His heart was beating heavily and unevenly; the earth seemed faintly reeling under his feet. Litvinov turned again along the Lichtenthaler Allee. He realised that the decisive moment had come, that to put it off longer, to dissemble, to turn away, had become impossible, that an explanation with Tatyana had become inevitable; he could imagine how she was sitting there, never stirring, waiting for him . . . he could foresee what he would say to her; but how was he to act, how was he to begin? He had turned his back on his upright, well-organised, orderly future; he knew that he was flinging himself headlong into a gulf . . . but that did not confound him. The thing was done, but how was he to face his judge? And if only his judge would come to meet him—an angel with a flaming sword; that would be easier for a sinning heart . . . instead of which he had himself to plunge the knife in. . . . Infamous! But to turn back, to abandon that other, to take advantage of the freedom offered him, recognised as his. . . . No! better to die! No, he would have none of such loathsome freedom . . . but would humble himself in the dust, and might those eyes look down on him with love. . . .
'Grigory Mihalitch,' said a melancholy voice, and some one's hand was laid heavily upon Litvinov.
He looked round in some alarm and recognised Potugin.
'I beg your pardon, Grigory Mihalitch,' began the latter with his customary humility, 'I am disturbing you perhaps, but, seeing you in the distance, I thought. . . . However if you 're not in the humour. . . '
'On the contrary I 'm delighted,' Litvinov muttered between his teeth.
Potugin walked beside him.
'What a lovely evening!' he began, 'so warm! Have you been walking long?'
'No, not long.'
'Why do I ask though; I' ve just seen you come out of the Hôtel de l'Еuгоре! '
'Then you 've been following me?'
'You have something to say to me?'
'Yes,' Potugin repeated, hardly audibly.
Litvinov stopped and looked at his uninvited companion. His face was pale, his eyes moved restlessly; his contorted features seemed overshadowed by old, long-standing grief.
'What do you specially want to say to me?' Litvinov said slowly, and he moved forward.
'Ah, with your permission . . . directly. If it 's all the same to you, let us sit down here on this seat. It will be most convenient.'
'Why, this is something mysterious,' Litvinov declared, seating himself near him. 'You don't seem quite yourself, Sozont Ivanitch.'
'No; I 'm all right; and it 's nothing mysterious either. I specially wanted to tell you . . . the impression made on me by your betrothed . . . she is betrothed to you, I think? . . . well, anyway, by the girl to whom you introduced me to-day. I must say that in the course of my whole existence I have never met a more attractive creature. A heart of gold, a really angelic nature.'
Potugin uttered all these words with the same bitter and mournful air, so that even Litvinov could not help noticing the incongruity between his expression of face and his speech.
'You have formed a perfectly correct estimate of Tatyana Petrovna,' Litvinov began, 'though I can't help being surprised, first that you should be aware of the relation in which I stand to her; and secondly, that you should have understood her so quickly. She really has an angelic nature; but allow me to ask, did you want to talk to me about this?'
'It's impossible not to understand her at once,' Potugin replied quickly, as though evading the last question. 'One need only take one look into her eyes. She deserves every possible happiness on earth, and enviable is the fate of the man whose lot it is to give her that happiness! One must hope he may prove worthy of such a fate.'
Litvinov frowned slightly.
'Excuse me, Sozont Ivanitch,' he said, 'I must confess our conversation strikes me as altogether rather original. . . . I should like to know, does the hint contained in your words refer to me?'
Potugin did not at once answer Litvinov; he was visibly struggling with himself.
'Grigory Mihalitch,' he began at last, 'either I am completely mistaken in you, or you are capable of hearing the truth, from whomsoever it may come, and in however unattractive a form it may present itself. I told you just now, that I saw where you came from.'
'Why, from the Hôtel de l'Europe. What of that?'
'I know, of course, whom you have been to see there.'
'You have been to see Madame Ratmirov.'
'Well, I have been to see her. What next?'
'What next? . . . You, betrothed to Tatyana Petrovna, have been to see Madame Ratmirov, whom you love . . . and who loves you.'
Litvinov instantly got up from the seat; the blood rushed to his head.
'What 's this?' he cried at last, in a voice of concentrated exasperation: 'stupid jesting, spying? Kindly explain yourself.'
Potugin turned a weary look upon him.
'Ah! don't be offended at my words. Grigory Mihalitch, me you cannot offend. I did not begin to talk to you for that, and I 'm in no joking humour now.'
'Perhaps, perhaps. I 'm ready to believe in the excellence of your intentions; but still I may be allowed to ask you by what right you meddle in the private affairs, in the inner life, of another man, a man who is nothing to you; and what grounds you have for so confidently giving out your own . . . invention for the truth?'
'My invention! If I had imagined it, it should not have made you angry; and as for my right, well I never heard before that a man ought to ask himself whether he had the right to hold out a hand to a drowning man.'
'I am humbly grateful for your tender solicitude,' cried Litvinov passionately, 'but I am not in the least in need of it, and all the phrases about the ruin of inexperienced young men wrought by society women, about the immorality of fashionable society, and so on, I look upon merely as stock phrases, and indeed in a sense I positively despise them; and so I beg you to spare your rescuing arm, and to let me drown in peace.'
Potugin again raised his eyes to Litvinov. He was breathing hard, his lips were twitching,
'But look at me, young man,' broke from him at last, and he clapped himself on the breast: 'can you suppose I have anything in common with the ordinary, self-satisfied moralist, a preacher? Don't you understand that simply from interest in you, however strong it might be, I would never have let fall a word, I would never have given you grounds for reproaching me with what I hate above all things—indiscretion, intrusiveness? Don't you see that this is something of a different kind altogether, that before you is a man crushed, utterly obliterated by the very passion, from the results of which he would save you, and . . . and for the same woman!'
Litvinov stepped back a pace.
'Is it possible? What did you say? . . . You . . . you . . . Sozont Ivanitch? But Madame Byelsky . . . that child?'
'Ah, don't cross-examine me . . . Believe me! That is a dark terrible story, and I 'm not going to tell you it. Madame Byelsky I hardly knew, that child is not mine, but I took it all upon myself . . . because . . . she wished it, because it was necessary for her. Why am I here in your hateful Baden? And, in fact, could you suppose, could you for one instant imagine, that I'd have brought myself to caution you out of sympathy for you? I 'm sorry for that sweet, good girl, your fiancée, but what have I to do with your future, with you both? . . . But I am afraid for her ... for her.'
'You do me great honour, Mr. Potugin,' began Litvinov, 'but since, according to you, we are both in the same position, why is it you don't apply such exhortations to yourself, and ought I not to ascribe your apprehensions to another feeling?'
'That is to jealousy, you mean? Ah, young man, young man, it's shameful of you to shuffle and make pretences, it 's shameful of you not to realise what a bitter sorrow is speaking to you now by my lips! No, I am not in the same position as you! I, I am old, ridiculous, an utterly harmless old fool—but you! But there 's no need to talk about it! You would not for one second agree to accept the position I fill, and fill with gratitude! Jealousy? A man is not jealous who has never had even a drop of hope, and this is not the first time it has been my lot to endure this feeling. I am only afraid . . . afraid for her, understand that. And could I have guessed when she sent me to you that the feeling of having wronged you —she owned to feeling that—would carry her so far?'
'But excuse me, Sozont Ivanitch, you seem to know . . .'
'I know nothing, and I know everything! I know,' he added, turning away, 'I know where she was yesterday. But there 's no holding her back now; like a stone set rolling, she must roll on to the bottom. I should be a great idiot indeed, if I imagined my words could hold you back at once . . . you, when a woman like that . . . But that 's enough of this. I couldn't restrain myself, that 's my whole excuse. And after all how can one know, and why not try? Perhaps, you will think again; perhaps, some word of mine will go to your heart, you will not care to ruin her and yourself, and that innocent sweet creature . . . Ah! don't be angry, don't stamp about! What have I to fear? Why should I mince matters? It 's not jealousy speaking in me, not anger ... I 'm ready to fall at your feet, to beseech you . . . Good-bye, though. You needn't be afraid, all this will be kept secret. I wished for your good.'
Potugin strode off along the avenue and quickly vanished in the now falling darkness. Litvinov did not detain him.
'A terrible dark story . . .' Potugin had said to Litvinov, and would not tell it . . . Let us pass it over with a few words only.
Eight years before, it had happened to him to be sent by his department to Count Reisenbach as a temporary clerk. It was in the summer. Potugin used to drive to his country villa with papers, and be whole days there at a time. Irina was then living at the count's. She was never haughty with people in a humbler station, at least she never treated them superciliously, and the countess more than once reproved her for her excessive Moscow familiarity. Irina soon detected a man of intelligence in the humble clerk, attired in the stiffly buttoned frockcoat that was his uniform. She used often and eagerly to talk to him . . . while he . . . he fell in love with her passionately, profoundly, secretly . . . Secretly! So he thought. The summer passed; the count no longer needed any outside assistance. Potugin lost sight of Irina but could not forget her. Three years after, he utterly unexpectedly received an invitation, through a third person, to go to see a lady slightly known to him. This lady at first was reluctant to speak out, but after exacting an oath from him to keep everything he was going to hear absolutely secret, she proposed to him . . . to marry a girl, who occupied a conspicuous position in society, and for whom marriage had become a necessity. The lady scarcely ventured to hint at the principal personage, and then promised Potugin money . . . a large sum of money. Potugin was not offended, astonishment stifled all feeling of anger in him; but, of course, he point-blank declined. Then the lady handed him a note—from Irina. 'You are a generous, noble man,' she wrote, 'and I know you would do anything for me; I beg of you this sacrifice. You will save one who is very dear to me. In saving her, you will save me too . . . Do not ask me how. I could never have brought myself to any one with such an entreaty, but to you I hold out my hands and say to you, do it for my sake.' Potugin pondered, and said that for Irina Pavlovna, certainly he was ready to do a great deal; but he should like to hear her wishes from her own lips. The interview took place the same evening; it did not last long, and no one knew of it, except the same lady. Irina was no longer living at Count Reisenbach's.
'What made you think of me, of all people?' Potugin asked her.
She was beginning to expatiate on his noble qualities, but suddenly she stopped . . .
'No,' she said, 'you must be told the truth. I know, I know that you love me; so that was why I made up my mind . . .' and then she told him everything.
Eliza Byelsky was an orphan; her relations did not like her, and reckoned on her inheritance . . . ruin was facing her. In saving her, Irina was really doing a service to him who was responsible for it all, and who was himself now standing in a very close relation to Irina . . . Potugin, without speaking, looked long at Irina, and consented. She wept, and flung herself all in tears on his neck. And he too wept . . . but very different were their tears. Everything had already been made ready for the secret marriage, a powerful hand removed all obstacles. . . . But illness came . . . and then a daughter was born, and then the mother . . . poisoned herself. What was to be done with the child? Potugin received it into his charge, received it from the same hands, from the hands of Irina.
A terrible dark story . . . Let us pass on, readers, pass on!
Over an hour more passed before Litvinov could bring himself to go back to his hotel. He had almost reached it when he suddenly heard steps behind him. It seemed as though they were following him persistently, and walking faster when he quickened his pace. When he moved under a lamp-post Litvinov turned round and recognised General Ratmirov. In a white tie, in a fashionable overcoat, flung open, with a row of stars and crosses on a golden chain in the buttonhole of his frockcoat, the general was returning from dinner, alone. His eyes, fastened with insolent persistence on Litvinov, expressed such contempt and such hatred, his whole deportment was suggestive of such intense defiance, that Litvinov thought it his duty, stifling his wrath, to go to meet him, to face a 'scandal.' But when he was on a level with Litvinov, the general's face suddenly changed, his habitual playful refinement reappeared upon it, and his hand in its pale lavender glove flourished his glossy hat high in the air. Litvinov took off his in silence, and each went on his way.
'He has noticed something, for certain!' thought Litvinov.
'If only it were . . . any one else!' thought the general.
Tatyana was playing picquet with her aunt when Litvinov entered their room.
'Well, I must say, you 're a pretty fellow!' cried Kapitolina Markovna, and she threw down her cards. 'Our first day, and he 's lost for the whole evening! Here we 've been waiting and waiting, and scolding and scolding . . .'
'I said nothing, aunt,' observed Tatyana.
'Well, you 're meekness itself, we all know! You ought to be ashamed, sir ! and you betrothed too!'
Litvinov made some sort of excuse and sat down to the table.
'Why have you left off your game?' he asked after a brief silence.
'Well, that 's a nice question! We 've been playing cards from sheer dulness, not knowing what to do with ourselves . . . but now you 've come.'
'If you would care to hear the evening music,' observed Litvinov, 'I should be delighted to take you.'
Kapitolina Markovna looked at her niece.
'Let us go, aunt, I am ready,' she said, 'but wouldn't it be better to stay at home?'
'To be sure! Let us have tea in our own old Moscow way, with the samovar, and have a good chat. We 've not had a proper gossip yet.'
Litvinov ordered tea to be sent up, but the good chat did not come off. He felt a continual gnawing of conscience; whatever he said, it always seemed to him that he was telling lies and Tatyana was seeing through it. Meanwhile there was no change to be observed in her; she behaved just as unconstrainedly . . . only her look never once rested upon Litvinov, but with a kind of indulgent timorousness glided over him, and she was paler than usual.
Kapitolina Markovna asked her whether she had not a headache.
Tatyana was at first about to say no, but after a moment's thought, she said, 'Yes, a little'
'It 's the journey,' suggested Litvinov, and he positively blushed with shame.
'Yes, the journey,' repeated Tatyana, and her eyes again glided over him.
'You ought to rest, Tanya darling.'
'Yes, I will go to bed soon, aunt.'
On the table lay a Guide des Voyageurs; Litvinov fell to reading aloud the description of the environs of Baden.
'Quite so,' Kapitolina Markovna interrupted, 'but there 's something we mustn't forget. I 'm told linen is very cheap here, so we must be sure to buy some for the trousseau.'
Tatyana dropped her eyes.
'We have plenty of time, aunt. You never think of yourself, but you really ought to get yourself some clothes. You see how smart every one is here.'
'Eh, my love! what would be the good of that? I 'm not a fine lady! It would be another thing if I were such a beauty as your friend, Grigory Mihalitch, what was her name?'
'Why, that we met to-day.'
'Oh, she!' said Litvinov, with feigned indifference, and again he felt disgust and shame. 'No!' he thought, 'to go on like this is impossible.'
He was sitting by his betrothed, while a few inches from her in his side pocket, was Irina's handkerchief.
Kapitoh'na Markovna went for a minute into the other room.
'Tanya . . .' said Litvinov, with an effort. It was the first time that day he had called her by that name.
She turned towards him.
'I ... I have something very important to say to you.'
'Oh! really? when? directly?'
'Oh! to-morrow. Very well.'
Litvinov's soul was suddenly filled with boundless pity. He took Tatyana's hand and kissed it humbly, like a sinner; her heart throbbed faintly and she felt no happiness.
In the night, at two o'clock, Kapitolina Markovna, who was sleeping in the same room with her niece, suddenly lifted up her head and listened.
'Tanya,' she said, 'you are crying?'
Tatyana did not at once answer.
'No, aunt,' sounded her gentle voice, 'I 've caught a cold.'