Litvinov took up his book again, but he could not read. He went out of the house, walked a little, listened to the music, glanced in at the gambling, returned again to his room, and tried again to read—still without success. The time seemed to drag by with peculiar dreariness. Pishtchalkin, the well-intentioned peaceable mediator, came in and sat with him for three hours. He talked, argued, stated questions, and discoursed intermittently, first of elevated, and then of practical topics, and succeeded in diffusing around him such an atmosphere of dulness that poor Litvinov was ready to cry. In raising dulness—agonising, chilling, helpless, hopeless dulness—to a fine art, Pishtchalkin was absolutely unrivalled even among persons of the highest morality, who are notoriously masters in that line. The mere sight of his well-cut and well-brushed head, his clear lifeless eyes, his benevolent nose, produced an involuntary despondency, and his deliberate,-116- drowsy, lazy tone seemed to have been created only to state with conviction and lucidity such sententious truths as that twice two makes four and not five or three, that water is liquid, and benevolence laudable; that to the private individual, no less than to the state, and to the state no less than to the private individual, credit is absolutely indispensable for financial operations. And with all this he was such an excellent man! But such is the sentence the fates have passed on Russia; among us, good men are dull. Pishtchalkin retreated at last; he was replaced by Bindasov, who, without any beating about the bush, asked Litvinov with great effrontery for a loan of a hundred guldens, and the latter gave it him, in spite of the fact that Bindasov was not only unattractive, but even repulsive to him, that he knew for certain that he would never get his money back; and was, besides, himself in need of it. What made him give him the money then, the reader will inquire. Who can tell! That is another Russian weakness. Let the reader lay his hand on his heart and remember how many acts in his own life have had absolutely no other reason. And Bindasov did not even thank Litvinov; he asked for a glass of red Baden wine, and without wiping his lips departed, loudly and offensively tramping with his-117- boots. And how vexed Litvinov was with himself already, as he watched the red nape of the retreating sharper’s neck! Before evening he received a letter from Tatyana in which she informed him that as her aunt was not well, she could not come to Baden for five or six days. This news had a depressing influence on Litvinov; it increased his vexation, and he went to bed early in a disagreeable frame of mind. The following day turned out no better, if not worse, than the preceding. From early morning Litvinov’s room was filled with his own countrymen; Bambaev, Voroshilov, Pishtchalkin, the two officers, the two Heidelberg students, all crowded in at once, and yet did not go away right up till dinner time, though they had soon said all they had to say and were obviously bored. They simply did not know what to do with themselves, and having got into Litvinov’s lodgings they ‘stuck’ there, as they say. First they discussed the fact that Gubaryov had gone back to Heidelberg, and that they would have to go after him; then they philosophised a little, and touched on the Polish question; then they advanced to reflections on gambling and cocottes, and fell to repeating scandalous anecdotes; at last the conversation sank into a discussion of all sorts of ‘strong men’ and monsters of obesity and-118- gluttony. First, they trotted out all the ancient stories of Lukin, of the deacon who ate no less than thirty-three herrings for a wager, of the Uhlan colonel, Ezyedinov, renowned for his corpulence, and of the soldier who broke the shin-bone on his own forehead; then followed unadulterated lying. Pishtchalkin himself related with a yawn that he knew a peasant woman in Little Russia, who at the time of her death had proved to weigh half a ton and some pounds, and a landowner who had eaten three geese and a sturgeon for luncheon; Bambaev suddenly fell into an ecstatic condition, and declared he himself was able to eat a whole sheep, ‘with seasoning’ of course; and Voroshilov burst out with something about a comrade, an athletic cadet, so grotesque that every one was reduced to silence, and after looking at each other, they took up their hats, and the party broke up. Litvinov, when he was left alone, tried to occupy himself, but he felt just as if his head was full of smouldering soot; he could do nothing that was of any use, and the evening too was wasted. The next morning he was just preparing for lunch, when some one knocked at his door. ‘Good Lord,’ thought Litvinov, ‘one of yesterday’s dear friends again,’ and not without some trepidation he pronounced:
The door opened slowly and in walked Potugin. Litvinov was exceedingly delighted to see him.
‘This is nice!’ he began, warmly shaking hands with his unexpected visitor, ‘this is good of you! I should certainly have looked you up myself, but you would not tell me where you live. Sit down, please, put down your hat. Sit down.’
Potugin made no response to Litvinov’s warm welcome, and remained standing in the middle of the room, shifting from one leg to the other; he only laughed a little and shook his head. Litvinov’s cordial reception obviously touched him, but there was some constraint in the expression of his face.
‘There’s ... some little misunderstanding,’ he began, not without hesitation. ‘Of course, it would always be ... a pleasure ... to me ... but I have been sent ... especially to you.’
‘That’s to say, do you mean,’ commented Litvinov in an injured voice, ‘that you would not have come to me of your own accord?’
‘Oh, no, ... indeed! But I ... I should, perhaps, not have made up my mind to intrude on you to-day, if I had not been asked to come to you. In fact, I have a message for you.’
‘From whom, may I ask?’
‘From a person you know, from Irina Pavlovna Ratmirov. You promised three days ago to go and see her and you have not been.’
Litvinov stared at Potugin in amazement.
‘You know Madame Ratmirov?’
‘As you see.’
‘And you know her well?’
‘I am to a certain degree a friend of hers.’
Litvinov was silent for a little.
‘Allow me to ask you,’ he began at last, ‘do you know why Irina Pavlovna wants to see me?’
Potugin went up to the window.
‘To a certain degree I do. She was, as far as I can judge, very pleased at meeting you,—well,—and she wants to renew your former relations.’
‘Renew,’ repeated Litvinov. ‘Excuse my indiscretion, but allow me to question you a little more. Do you know what was the nature of those relations?’
‘Strictly speaking ... no, I don’t know. But I imagine,’ added Potugin, turning suddenly to Litvinov and looking affectionately at him, ‘I imagine that they were of some value. Irina Pavlovna spoke very highly of you, and I was obliged to promise her I would bring you. Will you come?’
‘Now ... at once.’
Litvinov merely made a gesture with his hand.
‘Irina Pavlovna,’ pursued Potugin, ‘supposes that the ... how can I express it ... the environment, shall we say, in which you found her the other day, was not likely to be particularly attractive to you; but she told me to tell you, that the devil is not so black as he is fancied.’
‘Hm.... Does that saying apply strictly to the environment?’
‘Yes ... and in general.’
‘Hm.... Well, and what is your opinion, Sozont Ivanitch, of the devil?’
‘I think, Grigory Mihalitch, that he is in any case not what he is fancied.’
‘Is he better?’
‘Whether better or worse it’s hard to say, but certainly he is not the same as he is fancied. Well, shall we go?’
‘Sit here a little first. I must own that it still seems rather strange to me.’
‘What seems strange, may I make bold to inquire?’
‘In what way can you have become a friend of Irina Pavlovna?’
Potugin scanned himself.
‘With my appearance, and my position in-122- society, it certainly does seem rather incredible; but you know—Shakespeare has said already, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, etc.” Life too is not to be trifled with. Here is a simile for you; a tree stands before you when there is no wind; in what way can a leaf on a lower branch touch a leaf on an upper branch? It’s impossible. But when the storm rises it is all changed ... and the two leaves touch.’
‘Aha! So there were storms?’
‘I should think so! Can one live without them? But enough of philosophy. It’s time to go.’
Litvinov was still hesitating.
‘O good Lord!’ cried Potugin with a comic face, ‘what are young men coming to nowadays! A most charming lady invites them to see her, sends messengers after them on purpose, and they raise difficulties. You ought to be ashamed, my dear sir, you ought to be ashamed. Here’s your hat. Take it and “Vorwärts,” as our ardent friends the Germans say.’
Litvinov still stood irresolute for a moment, but he ended by taking his hat and going out of the room with Potugin.