Smoke (Turgenev)/XXIII

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XXIII

This was what was in this letter to Irina:

'My betrothed went away yesterday; we shall never see each other again. . . . I do not know even for certain where she is going to live. With her, she takes all that till now seemed precious and desirable to me; all my previous ideas, my plans, my intentions, have gone with her; my labours even are wasted, my work of years ends in nothing, all my pursuits have no meaning, no applicability; all that is dead; myself, my old self, is dead and buried since yesterday. I feel, I see, I know this clearly . . . far am I from regretting this. Not to lament of it, have I begun upon this to you. . . . As though I could complain when you love me, Irina! I wanted only to tell you that, of all this dead past, all those hopes and efforts, turned to smoke and ashes, there is only one thing left living, invincible, my love for you. Except that love, nothing is left for me; to say it is the sole thing precious to me, would be too little; I live wholly in that love; that love is my whole being; in it are my future, my career, my vocation, my country! You know me, Irina; you know that fine talk of any sort is foreign to my nature, hateful to me, and however strong the words in which I try to express my feelings, you will have no doubts of their sincerity, you will not suppose them exaggerated. I 'm not a boy, in the impulse of momentary ecstasy, lisping unreflecting vows to you, but a man of matured age—simply and plainly, almost with terror, telling you what he has recognised for unmistakable truth. Yes, your love has replaced everything for me—everything, everything! Judge for yourself: can I leave this my all in the hands of another? can I let him dispose of you? You—you will belong to him, my whole being, my heart's blood will belong to him—while I myself . . . where am I? what am I? An outsider—an onlooker . . . looking on at my own life! No, that's impossible, impossible! To share, to share in secret that without which it 's useless, impossible to live . . . that 's deceit and death. I know how great a sacrifice I am asking of you, without any sort of right to it; indeed, what can give one a right to sacrifice? But I am not acting thus from egoism: an egoist would find it easier and smoother not to raise this question at all. Yes, my demands are difficult, and I am not surprised that they alarm you. The people among whom you have to live are hateful to you, you are sick of society, but are you strong enough to throw up that society? to trample on the success it has crowned you with? to rouse public opinion against you—the opinion of these hateful people? Ask yourself, Irina, don't take a burden upon you greater than you can bear. I don't want to reproach you; but remember: once already you could not hold out against temptation. I can give you so little in return for all you are losing. Hear my last word: if you don't feel capable to-morrow, to-day even, of leaving all and following me—you see how boldly I speak, how little I spare myself,—if you are frightened at the uncertainty of the future, and estrangement and solitude and the censure of men, if you cannot rely on yourself, in fact, tell me so openly and without delay, and I will go away; I shall go with a broken heart, but I shall bless you for your truthfulness. But if you really, my beautiful, radiant queen, love a man so petty, so obscure as I, and are really ready to share his fate,—well, then, give me your hand, and let us set off together on our difficult way! Only understand, my decision is unchanging; either all or nothing. It's unreasonable . . . but I could not do otherwise—I cannot, Irina! I love you too much.—Yours, G. L.'

Litvinov did not much like this letter himself; it did not quite truly and exactly express what he wanted to say; it was full of awkward expressions, high flown or bookish, and doubtless it was not better than many of the other letters he had torn up; but it was the last, the chief point was thoroughly stated anyway, and harassed, and worn out, Litvinov did not feel capable of dragging anything else out of his head. Besides he did not possess the faculty of putting his thought into literary form, and like all people with whom it is not habitual, he took great trouble over the style. His first letter was probably the best; it came warmer from the heart. However that might be, Litvinov despatched his missive to Irina.

She replied in a brief note:

'Come to me to-day,' she wrote to him: ' he has gone away for the whole day. Your letter has greatly disturbed me. I keep thinking, thinking . . . and my head is in a whirl. I am very wretched, but you love me, and I am happy. Come. Yours, I.'

She was sitting in her boudoir when Litvinov went in. He was conducted there by the same little girl of thirteen who on the previous day had watched for him on the stairs. On the table before Irina was standing an open, semicircular, cardboard box of lace: she was carelessly turning over the lace with one hand, in the other she was holding Litvinov's letter. She had only just left off crying; her eyelashes were wet, and her eyelids swollen; on her cheeks could be seen the traces of undried tears not wiped away. Litvinov stood still in the doorway; she did not notice his entrance.

'You are crying?' he said wonderingly.

She started, passed her hand over her hair and smiled.

'Why are you crying?' repeated Litvinov. She pointed in silence to the letter. 'So you were . . . over that,' he articulated haltingly.

'Come here, sit down,' she said, 'give me your hand. Well, yes, I was crying . . . what are you surprised at? Is that nothing?' she pointed again to the letter.

Litvinov sat down.

'I know it 's not easy, Irina, I tell you so indeed in my letter . . . I understand your position. But if you believe in the value of your love for me, if my words have convinced you, you ought, too, to understand what I feel now at the sight of your tears. I have come here, like a man on his trial, and I await what is to be my sentence? Death or life? Your answer decides everything. Only don't look at me with those eyes. . . . They remind me of the eyes I saw in old days in Moscow.'

Irina flushed at once, and turned away, as though herself conscious of something evil in her gaze.

'Why do you say that, Grigory? For shame! You want to know my answer . . . do you mean to say you can doubt it? You are troubled by my tears . . . but you don't understand them. Your letter, dearest, has set me thinking. Here you write that my love has replaced everything for you, that even your former studies can never now be put into practice; but I ask myself, can a man live for love alone? Won't it weary him at last, won't he want an active career, and won't he cast the blame on what drew him away from active life? That's the thought that dismays me, that's what I am afraid of, and not what you imagine.'

Litvinov looked intently at Irina, and Irina intently looked at him, as though each would penetrate deeper and further into the soul of the other, deeper and further than word can reach, or word betray.

'You are wrong in being afraid of that,' began Litvinov. 'I must have expressed myself badly. Weariness? Inactivity? With the new impetus your love will give me? О Irina, in your love there 's a whole world for me, and I can't yet foresee myself what may develop from it.'

Irina grew thoughtful.

'Where are we going?' she whispered.

'Where? We will talk of that later. But, of course, then . . . then you agree? you agree, Irina?'

She looked at him. 'And you will be happy?'

'О Irina!'

'You will regret nothing? Never?'

She bent over the cardboard box, and again began looking over the lace in it.

'Don't be angry with me, dear one, for attending to this trash at such a moment. . . . I am obliged to go to a ball at a certain lady's, these bits of finery have been sent me, and I must choose to-day. Ah! I am awfully wretched!' she cried suddenly, and she laid her face down on the edge of the box. Tears began falling again from her eyes. . . . She turned away; the tears might spoil the lace.

'Irina, you are crying again,' Litvinov began uneasily.

'Ah, yes, again,' Irina interposed hurriedly. 'О Grigory, don't torture me, don't torture yourself! . . . Let us be free people! What does it matter it I do cry! And indeed do I know myself why my tears are flowing? You know, you have heard my decision, you believe it will not be changed. That I agree to . . . What was it you said? . . . to all or nothing . . . what more would you have? Let us be free! Why these mutual chains? We are alone together now, you love me. I love you; is it possible we have nothing to do but wringing our thoughts out of each other? Look at me, I don't want to talk about mvself, I have never by one word hinted that for me perhaps it was not so easy to set at nought my duty as a wife . . . and, of course, I don't deceive myself, I know I am a criminal, and that he has a right to kill me. Well, what of it? Let us be free, I say. To-day is ours—a life-time 's ours.'

She got up from the arm-chair and looked at Litvinov with her head thrown back, faintly smiling and moving her eyebrows, while with one arm bare to the elbow she pushed back from her face a long tress on which a few tears glistened. A rich scarf slipped from the table and fell on the floor at Irina's feet. She trampled contemptuously on it. 'Or don't you like me, to-day? Have I grown ugly since yesterday? Tell me, have you often seen a prettier hand? And this hair? Tell me, do you love me?'

She clasped him in both arms, held his head close to her bosom, her comb fell out with a ringing sound, and her falling hair wrapped him in a soft flood of fragrance.