Early in the fifties, there was living in Moscow, in very straitened circumstances, almost in poverty, the numerous family of the Princes Osinin. These were real princes—not Tartar-Georgians, but pure-blooded descendants of Rurik. Their name is often to be met with in our chronicles under the first grand princes of Moscow, who created a united Russia. They possessed wide acres and many domains. Many a time they were rewarded for ‘service and blood and disablement.’ They sat in the Council of Boyars. One of them even rose to a very high position. But they fell under the ban of the empire through the plots of enemies ‘on a charge of witchcraft and evil philtres,’ and they were ruined ‘terribly and beyond recall.’ They were deprived of their rank, and banished to remote parts; the Osinins fell and had never risen again, had never attained to power again. The ban was taken off in time, and they were even reinstated in their Moscow house and belongings,-65- but it was of no avail. Their family was impoverished, ‘run to seed’; it did not revive under Peter, nor under Catherine; and constantly dwindling and growing humbler, it had by now reckoned private stewards, managers of wine-shops, and ward police-inspectors among its members. The family of Osinins, of whom we have made mention, consisted of a husband and wife and five children. It was living near the Dogs’ Place, in a one-storied little wooden house, with a striped portico looking on to the street, green lions on the gates, and all the other pretensions of nobility, though it could hardly make both ends meet, was constantly in debt at the green-grocer’s, and often sitting without firewood or candles in the winter. The prince himself was a dull, indolent man, who had once been a handsome dandy, but had gone to seed completely. More from regard for his wife, who had been a maid-of-honour, than from respect for his name, he had been presented with one of those old-fashioned Moscow posts that have a small salary, a queer-sounding name, and absolutely no duties attached. He never meddled in anything, and did nothing but smoke from morning till night, breathing heavily, and always wrapped in a dressing-gown. His wife was a sickly irritable woman, for ever worried over domestic trifles—over getting her children-66- placed in government schools, and keeping up her Petersburg connections; she could never accustom herself to her position and her remoteness from the Court.
Litvinov’s father had made acquaintance with the Osinins during his residence at Moscow, had had occasion to do them some services, and had once lent them three hundred roubles; and his son often visited them while he was a student; his lodging happened to be at no great distance from their house. But he was not drawn to them simply as near neighbours, nor tempted by their comfortless way of living. He began to be a frequent visitor at their house after he had fallen in love with their eldest daughter Irina.
She had then completed her seventeenth year; she had only just left school, from which her mother withdrew her through a disagreement with the principal. This disagreement arose from the fact that Irina was to have delivered at a public function some verses in French, complimentary to the curator, and just before the performance her place was filled by another girl, the daughter of a very rich spirit-contractor. The princess could not stomach this affront; and indeed Irina herself never forgave the principal for this act of injustice; she had been dreaming beforehand of how she would rise-67- before the eyes of every one, attracting universal attention, and would deliver her speech, and how Moscow would talk about her afterwards!... And, indeed, Moscow would have talked about her afterwards. She was a tall, slim girl, with a somewhat hollow chest and narrow unformed shoulders, with a skin of a dead-white, rare at her age, and pure and smooth as china, with thick fair hair; there were darker tresses mingled in a very original way with the light ones. Her features—exquisitely, almost too perfectly, correct—had not yet quite lost the innocent expression that belongs to childhood; the languid curves of her lovely neck, and her smile—half-indifferent, half-weary—betrayed the nervous temperament of a delicate girl; but in the lines of those fine, faintly-smiling lips, of that small, falcon, slightly-narrow nose, there was something wilful and passionate, something dangerous for herself and others. Astounding, really astounding were her eyes, dark grey with greenish lights, languishing, almond-shaped as an Egyptian goddess’s, with shining lashes and bold sweep of eyebrow. There was a strange look in those eyes; they seemed looking out intently and thoughtfully—looking out from some unknown depth and distance. At school, Irina had been reputed one of the best pupils for intelligence and abilities, but of uneven-68- temper, fond of power, and headstrong; one class-mistress prophesied that her passions would be her ruin—‘vos passions vous perdront’, on the other hand, another class-mistress censured her for coldness and want of feeling, and called her ‘une jeune fille sans cœur.’ Irina’s companions thought her proud and reserved: her brothers and sisters stood a little in awe of her: her mother had no confidence in her: and her father felt ill at ease when she fastened her mysterious eyes upon him. But she inspired a feeling of involuntary respect in both her father and her mother, not so much through her qualities, as from a peculiar, vague sense of expectations which she had, in some undefined way, awakened in them.
‘You will see, Praskovya Danilovna,’ said the old prince one day, taking his pipe out of his mouth, ‘our chit of an Irina will give us all a lift in the world yet.’
The princess got angry, and told her husband that he made use of ‘des expressions insupportables’; afterwards, however, she fell to musing over his words, and repeated through her teeth:
‘Well ... and it would be a good thing if we did get a lift.’
Irina enjoyed almost unlimited freedom in her parents’ house; they did not spoil her, they even avoided her a little, but they did not-69- thwart her, and that was all she wanted.... Sometimes—during some too humiliating scene—when some tradesman would come and keep shouting, to be heard over the whole court, that he was sick of coming after his money, or their own servants would begin abusing their masters to their face, with ‘fine princes you are, to be sure; you may whistle for your supper, and go hungry to bed’—Irina would not stir a muscle; she would sit unmoved, an evil smile on her dark face; and her smile alone was more bitter to her parents than any reproaches, and they felt themselves guilty—guilty, though guiltless—towards this being on whom had been bestowed, as it seemed, from her very birth, the right to wealth, to luxury, and to homage.
Litvinov fell in love with Irina from the moment he saw her (he was only three years older than she was), but for a long while he failed to obtain not only a response, but even a hearing. Her manner to him was even overcast with a shade of something like hostility; he did in fact wound her pride, and she concealed the wound, and could never forgive it. He was too young and too modest at that time to understand what might be concealed under this hostile, almost contemptuous severity. Often, forgetful of lectures and exercises, he-70- would sit and sit in the Osinins’ cheerless drawing-room, stealthily watching Irina, his heart slowly and painfully throbbing and suffocating him; and she would seem angry or bored, would get up and walk about the room, look coldly at him as though he were a table or chair, shrug her shoulders, and fold her arms. Or for a whole evening, even when talking with Litvinov, she would purposely avoid looking at him, as though denying him even that grace. Or she would at last take up a book and stare at it, not reading, but frowning and biting her lips. Or else she would suddenly ask her father or brother aloud: ‘What’s the German for patience?’ He tried to tear himself away from the enchanted circle in which he suffered and struggled impotently like a bird in a trap; he went away from Moscow for a week. He nearly went out of his mind with misery and dulness; he returned quite thin and ill to the Osinins’.... Strange to say, Irina too had grown perceptibly thinner during those days; her face had grown pale, her cheeks were wan.... But she met him with still greater coldness, with almost malignant indifference; as though he had intensified that secret wound he had dealt at her pride.... She tortured him in this way for two months. Then everything was transformed in one day. It was as though love-71- had broken into flame with the heat, or had dropped down from a storm-cloud. One day—long will he remember that day—he was once more sitting in the Osinins’ drawing-room at the window, and was looking mechanically into the street. There was vexation and weariness in his heart, he despised himself, and yet he could not move from his place.... He thought that if a river ran there under the window, he would throw himself in, with a shudder of fear, but without a regret. Irina placed herself not far from him, and was somehow strangely silent and motionless. For some days now she had not talked to him at all, or to any one else; she kept sitting, leaning on her elbows, as though she were in perplexity, and only rarely she looked slowly round. This cold torture was at last more than Litvinov could bear; he got up, and without saying good-bye, he began to look for his hat. ‘Stay,’ sounded suddenly, in a soft whisper. Litvinov’s heart throbbed, he did not at once recognise Irina’s voice; in that one word, there was a ring of something that had never been in it before. He lifted his head and was stupefied; Irina was looking fondly—yes, fondly at him. ‘Stay,’ she repeated; ‘don’t go. I want to be with you.’ Her voice sank still lower. ‘Don’t go.... I wish it.’ Understanding nothing, not fully conscious what he-72- was doing, he drew near her, stretched out his hands.... She gave him both of hers at once, then smiling, flushing hotly, she turned away, and still smiling, went out of the room. She came back a few minutes later with her youngest sister, looked at him again with the same prolonged tender gaze, and made him sit near her.... At first she could say nothing; she only sighed and blushed; then she began, timidly as it were, to question him about his pursuits, a thing she had never done before. In the evening of the same day, she tried several times to beg his forgiveness for not having done him justice before, assured him she had now become quite different, astonished him by a sudden outburst of republicanism (he had at that time a positive hero-worship for Robespierre, and did not presume to criticise Marat aloud), and only a week later he knew that she loved him. Yes; he long remembered that first day ... but he did not forget those that came after either—those days, when still forcing himself to doubt, afraid to believe in it, he saw clearly, with transports of rapture, almost of dread, bliss un-hoped for coming to life, growing, irresistibly carrying everything before it, reaching him at last. Then followed the radiant moments of first love—moments which are not destined to be, and could not fittingly be, repeated in the-73- same life. Irina became all at once as docile as a lamb, as soft as silk, and boundlessly kind; she began giving lessons to her younger sisters—not on the piano, she was no musician, but in French and English; she read their school-books with them, and looked after the housekeeping; everything was amusing and interesting to her; she would sometimes chatter incessantly, and sometimes sink into speechless tenderness; she made all sorts of plans, and was lost in endless anticipations of what she would do when she was married to Litvinov (they never doubted that their marriage would come to pass), and how together they would ... ‘Work?’ prompted Litvinov.... ‘Yes; work,’ repeated Irina, ‘and read ... but travel before all things.’ She particularly wanted to leave Moscow as soon as possible, and when Litvinov reminded her that he had not yet finished his course of study at the university, she always replied, after a moment’s thought, that it was quite possible to finish his studies at Berlin or ... somewhere or other. Irina was very little reserved in the expression of her feelings, and so her relations with Litvinov did not long remain a secret from the prince and princess. Rejoice they could not; but, taking all circumstances into consideration, they saw no necessity for putting a veto on-74- it at once. Litvinov’s fortune was considerable....
‘But his family, his family!’ ... protested the princess. ‘Yes, his family, of course,’ replied the prince; but at least he’s not quite a plebeian; and, what’s the principal point, Irina, you know, will not listen to us. Has there ever been a time when she did not do what she chose? Vous connaissez sa violence! Besides, there is nothing fixed definitely yet.’ So reasoned the prince, but mentally he added, however: ‘Madame Litvinov—is that all? I had expected something else.’ Irina took complete possession of her future fiancé, and indeed he himself eagerly surrendered himself into her hands. It was as if he had fallen into a rapid river, and had lost himself.... And bitter and sweet it was to him, and he regretted nothing and heeded nothing. To reflect on the significance and the duties of marriage, or whether he, so hopelessly enslaved, could be a good husband, and what sort of wife Irina would make, and whether their relations to one another were what they should be—was more than he could bring himself to. His blood was on fire, he could think of nothing, only—to follow her, be with her, for the future without end, and then—let come what may!
But in spite of the complete absence of-75- opposition on Litvinov’s side, and the wealth of impulsive tenderness on Irina’s, they did not get on quite without any misunderstandings and quarrels. One day he ran to her straight from the university in an old coat and ink-stained hands. She rushed to meet him with her accustomed fond welcome; suddenly she stopped short.
‘You have no gloves,’ she said abruptly, and added directly after: ‘Fie! what a student you are!’
‘You are too particular, Irina,’ remarked Litvinov.
‘You are a regular student,’ she repeated. ‘Vous n’êtes pas distingué’; and turning her back on him she went out of the room. It is true that an hour later she begged him to forgive her.... As a rule she readily censured herself and accused herself to him; but, strange to say, she often almost with tears blamed herself for evil propensities which she had not, and obstinately denied her real defects. Another time he found her in tears, her head in her hands, and her hair in disorder; and when, all in agitation, he asked her the cause of her grief, she pointed with her finger at her own bosom without speaking. Litvinov gave an involuntary shiver. ‘Consumption!’ flashed through his brain, and he seized her hand.
‘Are you ill, Irina?’ he articulated in a shaking voice. (They had already begun on great occasions to call each other by their first names.) ‘Let me go at once for a doctor.’
But Irina did not let him finish; she stamped with her foot in vexation.
‘I am perfectly well ... but this dress ... don’t you understand?’
‘What is it? ... this dress,’ he repeated in bewilderment.
‘What is it? Why, that I have no other, and that it is old and disgusting, and I am obliged to put on this dress every day ... even when you—Grisha—Grigory, come here.... You will leave off loving me, at last, seeing me so slovenly!’
‘For goodness sake, Irina, what are you saying? That dress is very nice.... It is dear to me too because I saw you for the first time in it, darling.’
‘Do not remind me, if you please, Grigory Mihalovitch, that I had no other dress even then.’
‘But I assure you, Irina Pavlovna, it suits you so exquisitely.’
‘No, it is horrid, horrid,’ she persisted, nervously pulling at her long, soft curls. ‘Ugh, this poverty, poverty and squalor! How is one-77- to escape from this sordidness! How get out of this squalor!’
Litvinov did not know what to say, and slightly turned away from her.
All at once Irina jumped up from her chair, and laid both her hands on his shoulders.
‘But you love me, Grisha? You love me?’ she murmured, putting her face close to him, and her eyes, still filled with tears, sparkled with the light of happiness, ‘You love me, dear, even in this horrid dress?’
Litvinov flung himself on his knees before her.
‘Ah, love me, love me, my sweet, my saviour,’ she whispered, bending over him.
So the days flew, the weeks passed, and though as yet there had been no formal declaration, though Litvinov still deferred his demand for her hand, not, certainly, at his own desire, but awaiting directions from Irina (she remarked sometimes that they were both ridiculously young, and they must add at least a few weeks more to their years), still everything was moving to a conclusion, and the future as it came nearer grew more and more clearly defined, when suddenly an event occurred, which scattered all their dreams and plans like light roadside dust.