That winter the court visited Moscow. One festivity followed another; in its turn came the customary great ball in the Hall of Nobility. The news of this ball, only, it is true, in the form of an announcement in the Political Gazette, reached even the little house in Dogs’ Place. The prince was the first to be roused by it; he decided at once that he must not fail to go and take Irina, that it would be unpardonable to let slip the opportunity of seeing their sovereigns, that for the old nobility this constituted indeed a duty in its own way. He defended his opinion with a peculiar warmth, not habitual in him; the princess agreed with him to some extent, and only sighed over the expense; but a resolute opposition was displayed by Irina. ‘It is not necessary, I will not go,’ she replied to all her parents’ arguments. Her obstinacy reached such proportions that the old prince decided at last to beg Litvinov to try to persuade her, by reminding her among other-79- reasons that it was not proper for a young girl to avoid society, that she ought to ‘have this experience,’ that no one ever saw her anywhere, as it was. Litvinov undertook to lay these ‘reasons’ before her. Irina looked steadily and scrutinisingly at him, so steadily and scrutinisingly that he was confused, and then, playing with the ends of her sash, she said calmly:
‘Do you desire it, you?’
‘Yes.... I suppose so,’ replied Litvinov hesitatingly. ‘I agree with your papa.... Indeed, why should you not go ... to see the world, and show yourself,’ he added with a short laugh.
‘To show myself,’ she repeated slowly. ‘Very well then, I will go.... Only remember, it is you yourself who desired it.’
‘That’s to say, I——.’ Litvinov was beginning.
‘You yourself have desired it,’ she interposed. ‘And here is one condition more; you must promise me that you will not be at this ball.’
‘I wish it to be so.’
Litvinov unclasped his hands.
‘I submit ... but I confess I should so have enjoyed seeing you in all your grandeur, witnessing the sensation you are certain to make.... How proud I should be of you!’ he added with a sigh.
‘All the grandeur will consist of a white frock, and as for the sensation.... Well, any way, I wish it.’
‘Irina, darling, you seem to be angry?’
Irina laughed again.
‘Oh, no! I am not angry. Only, Grisha....’ (She fastened her eyes on him, and he thought he had never before seen such an expression in them.) ‘Perhaps, it must be,’ she added in an undertone.
‘But, Irina, you love me, dear?’
‘I love you,’ she answered with almost solemn gravity, and she clasped his hand firmly like a man.
All the following days Irina was busily occupied over her dress and her coiffure; on the day before the ball she felt unwell, she could not sit still, and twice she burst into tears in solitude; before Litvinov she wore the same uniform smile.... She treated him, however, with her old tenderness, but carelessly, and was constantly looking at herself in the glass. On the day of the ball she was silent and pale, but collected. At nine o’clock in the evening Litvinov came to look at her. When she came to meet him in a white tarlatan gown, with a spray of small blue flowers in her slightly raised hair, he almost uttered a cry; she seemed to him so-81- lovely and stately beyond what was natural to her years. ‘Yes, she has grown up since this morning!’ he thought, ‘and how she holds herself! That’s what race does!’ Irina stood before him, her hands hanging loose, without smiles or affectation, and looked resolutely, almost boldly, not at him, but away into the distance straight before her.
‘You are just like a princess in a story book,’ said Litvinov at last. ‘You are like a warrior before the battle, before victory.... You did not allow me to go to this ball,’ he went on, while she remained motionless as before, not because she was not listening to him, but because she was following another inner voice, ‘but you will not refuse to accept and take with you these flowers?’
He offered her a bunch of heliotrope. She looked quickly at Litvinov, stretched out her hand, and suddenly seizing the end of the spray which decorated her hair, she said:
‘Do you wish it, Grisha? Only say the word, and I will tear off all this, and stop at home.’
Litvinov’s heart seemed fairly bursting. Irina’s hand had already snatched the spray....
‘No, no, what for?’ he interposed hurriedly, in a rush of generous and magnanimous feeling, ‘I am not an egoist.... Why should I-82- restrict your freedom ... when I know that your heart——’
‘Well, don’t come near me, you will crush my dress,’ she said hastily.
Litvinov was disturbed.
‘But you will take the nosegay?’ he asked.
‘Of course; it is very pretty, and I love that scent. Merci—I shall keep it in memory——’
‘Of your first coming out,’ observed Litvinov, ‘your first triumph.’
Irina looked over her shoulder at herself in the glass, scarcely bending her figure.
‘And do I really look so nice? You are not partial?’
Litvinov overflowed in enthusiastic praises. Irina was already not listening to him, and holding the flowers up to her face, she was again looking away into the distance with her strange, as it were, overshadowed, dilated eyes, and the ends of her delicate ribbons stirred by a faint current of air rose slightly behind her shoulders like wings.
The prince made his appearance, his hair well becurled, in a white tie, and a shabby black evening coat, with the medal of nobility on a Vladimir ribbon in his buttonhole. After him came the princess in a china silk dress of antique cut, and with the anxious severity under which mothers try to conceal their agitation,-83- set her daughter to rights behind, that is to say, quite needlessly shook out the folds of her gown. An antiquated hired coach with seats for four, drawn by two shaggy hacks, crawled up to the steps, its wheels grating over the frozen mounds of unswept snow, and a decrepit groom in a most unlikely-looking livery came running out of the passage, and with a sort of desperate courage announced that the carriage was ready.... After giving a blessing for the night to the children left at home, and enfolding themselves in their fur wraps, the prince and princess went out to the steps; Irina in a little cloak, too thin and too short—how she hated the little cloak at that moment!—followed them in silence. Litvinov escorted them outside, hoping for a last look from Irina, but she took her seat in the carriage without turning her head.
About midnight he walked under the windows of the Hall of Nobility. Countless lights of huge candelabra shone with brilliant radiance through the red curtains; and the whole square, blocked with carriages, was ringing with the insolent, festive, seductive strains of a waltz of Strauss’.
The next day at one o’clock, Litvinov betook himself to the Osinins’. He found no one at home but the prince, who informed him at-84- once that Irina had a headache, that she was in bed, and would not get up till the evening, that such an indisposition was however little to be wondered at after a first ball.
‘C’est très naturel, vous savez, dans les jeunes filles,’ he added in French, somewhat to Litvinov’s surprise; the latter observed at the same instant that the prince was not in his dressing-gown as usual, but was wearing a coat. ‘And besides,’ continued Osinin, ‘she may well be a little upset after the events of yesterday!’
‘Events?’ muttered Litvinov.
‘Yes, yes, events, events, de vrais événements. You cannot imagine, Grigory Mihalovitch, quel succès elle a eu! The whole court noticed her! Prince Alexandr Fedorovitch said that her place was not here, and that she reminded him of Countess Devonshire. You know ... that ... celebrated.... And old Blazenkrampf declared in the hearing of all, that Irina was la reine du bal, and desired to be introduced to her; he was introduced to me too, that’s to say, he told me that he remembered me a hussar, and asked me where I was holding office now. Most entertaining man that Count, and such an adorateur du beau sexe! But that’s not all; my princess ... they gave her no peace either: Natalya Nikitishna herself conversed with her ... what more could we have? Irina-85- danced avec tous les meilleurs cavaliers; they kept bringing them up to me.... I positively lost count of them. Would you believe it, they were all flocking about us in crowds; in the mazurka they did nothing but seek her out. One foreign diplomatist, hearing she was a Moscow girl, said to the Tsar: ‘Sire,’ he said, ‘décidément c’est Moscou qui est le centre de votre empire!’ and another diplomatist added: ‘C’est une vraie révolution, Sire—révélation or révolution ... something of that sort. Yes, yes, it was. I tell you it was something extraordinary.’
‘Well, and Irina Pavlovna herself?’ inquired Litvinov, whose hands and feet had grown cold hearing the prince’s speech, ‘did she enjoy herself, did she seem pleased?’
‘Of course she enjoyed herself; how could she fail to be pleased? But, as you know, she’s not to be seen through at a glance! Every one was saying to me yesterday: it is really surprising! jamais on ne dirait que mademoiselle votre fille est a son premier bal. Count Reisenbach among the rest ... you know him most likely.’
‘No, I don’t know him at all, and have never heard of him.’
‘My wife’s cousin.’
‘I don’t know him.’
‘A rich man, a chamberlain, living in Petersburg, in the swim of things; in Livonia every one is in his hands. Hitherto he has neglected us ... but there, I don’t bear him ill-will for that. J’ai l’humeur facile, comme vous savez. Well, that’s the kind of man he is. He sat near Irina, conversed with her for a quarter of an hour, not more, and said afterwards to my princess: “Ma cousine,” he says, “votre fille est une perle; c’est une perfection, every one is congratulating me on such a niece....” And afterwards I look round—and he had gone up to a ... a very great personage, and was talking, and kept looking at Irina ... and the personage was looking at her too.’...
‘And so Irina Pavlovna will not appear all day?’ Litvinov asked again.
‘Quite so; her head aches very badly. She told me to greet you from her, and thank you for your flowers, qu’on a trouvé charmant. She needs rest.... The princess has gone out on a round of visits ... and I myself ... you see....’
The prince cleared his throat, and began to fidget as though he were at a loss what to add further. Litvinov took his hat, and saying he did not want to disturb him, and would call again later to inquire after her health, he went away.
A few steps from the Osinins’ house he saw an elegant carriage for two persons standing before the police sentry-box. A groom in livery, equally elegant, was bending negligently from the box, and inquiring of the Finnish police-sergeant whereabouts Prince Pavel Vassilyevitch Osinin lived. Litvinov glanced at the carriage; in it sat a middle-aged man of bloated complexion, with a wrinkled and haughty face, a Greek nose, and an evil mouth, muffled in a sable wrap, by all outward signs a very great man indeed.