They went to one of the best hotels in Baden and asked for Madame Ratmirov. The porter first inquired their names, and then answered at once that ‘die Frau Fürstin ist zu Hause,’ and went himself to conduct them up the staircase and knock at the door of the apartment and announce them. ‘Die Frau Fürstin’ received them promptly: she was alone, her husband had gone off to Carlsruhe for an interview with a great official, an influential personage who was passing through that town.
Irina was sitting at a small table, embroidering on canvas when Potugin and Litvinov crossed the threshold. She quickly flung her embroidery aside, pushed away the little table and got up; an expression of genuine pleasure overspread her face. She wore a morning dress, high at the neck; the superb lines of her shoulders and arms could be seen through the thin stuff; her carelessly-coiled hair had come loose and fell low on her slender neck. Irina-124- flung a swift glance at Potugin, murmured ‘merci,’ and holding out her hand to Litvinov reproached him amicably for forgetfulness.
‘And you such an old friend!’ she added.
Litvinov was beginning to apologise. ‘C’est bien, c’est bien,’ she assented hurriedly and, taking his hat from him, with friendly insistence made him sit down. Potugin, too, was sitting down, but got up again directly, and saying that he had an engagement he could not put off, and that he would come in again after dinner, he proceeded to take leave. Irina again flung him a rapid glance, and gave him a friendly nod, but she did not try to keep him, and directly he had vanished behind the portière, she turned with eager impatience to Litvinov.
‘Grigory Mihalitch,’ she began, speaking Russian in her soft musical voice, ‘here we are alone at last, and I can tell you how glad I am at our meeting, because it ... it gives me a chance...’ (Irina looked him straight in the face) ‘of asking your forgiveness.’
Litvinov gave an involuntary start. He had not expected so swift an attack. He had not expected she would herself turn the conversation upon old times.
‘Forgiveness ... for what?’ ... he muttered.
‘For what? ... you know for what,’ she said, and she turned slightly away. ‘I wronged you, Grigory Mihalitch ... though, of course, it was my fate’ (Litvinov was reminded of her letter) ‘and I do not regret it ... it would be in any case too late; but, meeting you so unexpectedly, I said to myself that we absolutely must become friends, absolutely ... and I should feel it deeply, if it did not come about ... and it seems to me for that we must have an explanation, without putting it off, and once for all, so that afterwards there should be no ... gêne, no awkwardness, once for all, Grigory Mihalitch; and that you must tell me you forgive me, or else I shall imagine you feel ... de la rancune. Voilà! It is perhaps a great piece of fatuity on my part, for you have probably forgotten everything long, long ago, but no matter, tell me, you have forgiven me.’
Irina uttered this whole speech without taking breath, and Litvinov could see that there were tears shining in her eyes ... yes, actually tears.
‘Really, Irina Pavlovna,’ he began hurriedly, ‘how can you beg my pardon, ask forgiveness?... That is all past and buried, and I can only feel astounded that, in the midst of all the splendour which surrounds you, you have still-126- preserved a recollection of the obscure companions of your youth....’
‘Does it astound you?’ said Irina softly.
‘It touches me,’ Litvinov went on, ‘because I could never have imagined——’
‘You have not told me you have forgiven me, though,’ interposed Irina.
‘I sincerely rejoice at your happiness, Irina Pavlovna. With my whole heart I wish you all that is best on earth....’
‘And you will not remember evil against me?’
‘I will remember nothing but the happy moments for which I was once indebted to you.’
Irina held out both hands to him; Litvinov clasped them warmly, and did not at once let them go.... Something that long had not been, secretly stirred in his heart at that soft contact. Irina was again looking straight into his face; but this time she was smiling.... And he for the first time gazed directly and intently at her.... Again he recognised the features once so precious, and those deep eyes, with their marvellous lashes, and the little mole on her cheek, and the peculiar growth of her hair on her forehead, and her habit of somehow sweetly and humorously curving her lips and faintly twitching her eyebrows, all, all he recognised.... But how beautiful she had-127- grown! What fascination, what power in her fresh, woman’s body! And no rouge, no touching up, no powder, nothing false on that fresh pure face.... Yes, this was a beautiful woman. A mood of musing came upon Litvinov.... He was still looking at her, but his thoughts were far away.... Irina perceived it.
‘Well, that is excellent,’ she said aloud; ‘now my conscience is at rest then, and I can satisfy my curiosity.’
‘Curiosity,’ repeated Litvinov, as though puzzled.
‘Yes, yes ... I want above all things to know what you have been doing all this time, what plans you have; I want to know all, how, what, when ... all, all. And you will have to tell me the truth, for I must warn you, I have not lost sight of you ... so far as I could.’
‘You did not lose sight of me, you ... there ... in Petersburg?’
‘In the midst of the splendour which surrounded me, as you expressed it just now. Positively, yes, I did not. As for that splendour we will talk about that again; but now you must tell me, you must tell me so much, at such length, no one will disturb us. Ah, how delightful it will be,’ added Irina, gaily sitting down and arranging herself at her ease in an armchair. ‘Come, begin.’
‘Before telling my story, I have to thank you,’ began Litvinov.
‘For the bouquet of flowers, which made its appearance in my room.’
‘What bouquet? I know nothing about it.’
‘I tell you I know nothing about it.... But I am waiting.... I am waiting for your story.... Ah, what a good fellow that Potugin is to have brought you!’
Litvinov pricked up his ears.
‘Have you known this Mr. Potugin long?’ he queried.
‘Yes, a long while ... but tell me your story.’
‘And do you know him well?’
‘Oh, yes!’ Irina sighed. ‘There are special reasons.... You have heard, of course, of Eliza Byelsky.... Who died, you know, the year before last, such a dreadful death?... Ah, to be sure, I’d forgotten you don’t know all our scandals.... It is well, it is well indeed, that you don’t know them. O quelle chance! at last, at last, a man, a live man, who knows nothing of us! And to be able to talk Russian with him, bad Russian of course, but still Russian, not that everlasting, mawkish, sickening French patter of Petersburg.’
‘And Potugin, you say, was connected with—’
‘It’s very painful for me even to refer to it,’ Irina broke in. ‘Eliza was my greatest friend at school, and afterwards in Petersburg we saw each other continually. She confided all her secrets to me, she was very unhappy, she suffered much. Potugin behaved splendidly in the affair, with true chivalry. He sacrificed himself. It was only then I learnt to appreciate him! But we have drifted away again. I am waiting for your story, Grigory Mihalitch.’
‘But my story cannot interest you the least, Irina Pavlovna.’
‘That’s not your affair.’
‘Think, Irina Pavlovna, we have not seen each other for ten years, ten whole years. How much water has flowed by since then.’
‘Not water only! not water only!’ she repeated with a peculiar bitter expression; ‘that’s just why I want to hear what you are going to tell me.’
‘And beside I really don’t know where to begin.’
‘At the beginning. From the very time when you ... when I went away to Petersburg. You left Moscow then.... Do you know I have never been back to Moscow since!’
‘It was impossible at first; and afterwards when I was married——.’
‘Have you been married long?’
‘Have you no children?’
‘No,’ she answered drily.
Litvinov was silent for a little.
‘And did you go on living at that, what was his name, Count Reisenbach’s, till your marriage?’
Irina looked steadily at him, as though she were trying to make up her mind why he asked that question.
‘No,’ ... was her answer at last.
‘I suppose, your parents.... By the way, I haven’t asked after them. Are they——’
‘They are both well.’
‘And living at Moscow as before?’
‘At Moscow as before.’
‘And your brothers and sisters?’
‘They are all right; I have provided for all of them.’
‘Ah!’ Litvinov glanced up from under his brows at Irina. ‘In reality, Irina Pavlovna, it’s not I who ought to tell my story, but you, if only——’ He suddenly felt embarrassed and stopped.
Irina raised her hands to her face and turned her wedding-ring round upon her finger.
‘Well? I will not refuse,’ she assented at last. ‘Some day ... perhaps.... But first you ... because, do you see, though I tried to follow you up, I know scarcely anything of you; while of me ... well, of me you have heard enough certainly. Haven’t you? I suppose you have heard of me, tell me?’
‘You, Irina Pavlovna, occupied too conspicuous a place in the world, not to be the subject of talk ... especially in the provinces, where I have been and where every rumour is believed.’
‘And do you believe the rumours? And of what kind were the rumours?’
‘To tell the truth, Irina Pavlovna, such rumours very seldom reached me. I have led a very solitary life.’
‘How so? why, you were in the Crimea, in the militia?’
‘You know that too?’
‘As you see. I tell you, you have been watched.’
Again Litvinov felt puzzled.
‘Why am I to tell you what you know without me?’ said Litvinov in an undertone.
‘Why ... to do what I ask you. You see I ask you, Grigory Mihalitch.’
Litvinov bowed his head and began ... began in rather a confused fashion to recount-132- in rough outline to Irina his uninteresting adventures. He often stopped and looked inquiringly at Irina, as though to ask whether he had told enough. But she insistently demanded the continuation of his narrative and pushing her hair back behind her ears, her elbows on the arm of her chair, she seemed to be catching every word with strained attention. Looking at her from one side and following the expression on her face, any one might perhaps have imagined she did not hear what Litvinov was saying at all, but was only deep in meditation.... But it was not of Litvinov she was meditating, though he grew confused and red under her persistent gaze. A whole life was rising up before her, a very different one, not his life, but her own.
Litvinov did not finish his story, but stopped short under the influence of an unpleasant sense of growing inner discomfort. This time Irina said nothing to him, and did not urge him to go on, but pressing her open hand to her eyes, as though she were tired, she leaned slowly back in her chair, and remained motionless. Litvinov waited for a little; then, reflecting that his visit had already lasted more than two hours, he was stretching out his hand for his hat, when suddenly in an adjoining room there was the sound of the rapid creak of thin kid boots, and-133- preceded by the same exquisite aristocratic perfume, there entered Valerian Vladimirovitch Ratmirov.
Litvinov rose and interchanged bows with the good-looking general, while Irina, with no sign of haste, took her hand from her face, and looking coldly at her husband, remarked in French, ‘Ah! so you’ve come back! But what time is it?’
‘Nearly four, ma chère amie, and you not dressed yet—the princess will be expecting us,’ answered the general; and with an elegant bend of his tightly-laced figure in Litvinov’s direction, he added with the almost effeminate playfulness of intonation characteristic of him, ‘It’s clear an agreeable visitor has made you forgetful of time.’
The reader will permit us at this point to give him some information about General Ratmirov. His father was the natural ... what do you suppose? You are not wrong—but we didn’t mean to say that ... the natural son of an illustrious personage of the reign of Alexander I. and of a pretty little French actress. The illustrious personage brought his son forward in the world, but left him no fortune, and the son himself (the father of our hero) had not time to grow rich; he died before he had risen above the rank of a colonel in the police. A year before-134- his death he had married a handsome young widow who had happened to put herself under his protection. His son by the widow, Valerian Alexandrovitch, having got into the Corps of Pages by favour, attracted the notice of the authorities, not so much by his success in the sciences, as by his fine bearing, his fine manners, and his good behaviour (though he had been exposed to all that pupils in the government military schools were inevitably exposed to in former days) and went into the Guards. His career was a brilliant one, thanks to the discreet gaiety of his disposition, his skill in dancing, his excellent seat on horseback when an orderly at reviews, and lastly, by a kind of special trick of deferential familiarity with his superiors, of tender, attentive almost clinging subservience, with a flavour of vague liberalism, light as air.... This liberalism had not, however, prevented him from flogging fifty peasants in a White Russian village, where he had been sent to put down a riot. His personal appearance was most prepossessing and singularly youthful-looking; smooth-faced and rosy-checked, pliant and persistent, he made the most of his amazing success with women; ladies of the highest rank and mature age simply went out of their senses over him. Cautious from habit, silent from motives of prudence, General Ratmirov moved constantly-135- in the highest society, like the busy bee gathering honey even from the least attractive flowers—and without morals, without information of any kind, but with the reputation of being good at business; with an insight into men, and a ready comprehension of the exigencies of the moment, and above all, a never-swerving desire for his own advantage, he saw at last all paths lying open before him....
Litvinov smiled constrainedly, while Irina merely shrugged her shoulders.
‘Well,’ she said in the same cold tone, ‘did you see the Count?’
‘To be sure I saw him. He told me to remember him to you.’
‘Ah! is he as imbecile as ever, that patron of yours?’
General Ratmirov made no reply. He only smiled to himself, as though lenient to the over-hastiness of a woman’s judgment. With just such a smile kindly-disposed grown-up people respond to the nonsensical whims of children.
‘Yes,’ Irina went on, ‘the stupidity of your friend the Count is too striking, even when one has seen a good deal of the world.’
‘You sent me to him yourself,’ muttered the general, and turning to Litvinov he asked him in Russian, ‘Was he getting any benefit from the Baden waters?’
‘I am in perfect health, I’m thankful to say,’ answered Litvinov.
‘That’s the greatest of blessings,’ pursued the general, with an affable grimace; ‘and indeed one doesn’t, as a rule, come to Baden for the waters; but the waters here are very effectual, je veux dire, efficaces; and any one who suffers, as I do for instance, from a nervous cough——’
Irina rose quickly. ‘We will see each other again, Grigory Mihalitch, and I hope soon,’ she said in French, contemptuously cutting short her husband’s speech, ‘but now I must go and dress. That old princess is insufferable with her everlasting parties de plaisir, of which nothing comes but boredom.’
‘You’re hard on every one to-day,’ muttered her husband, and he slipped away into the next room.
Litvinov was turning towards the door.... Irina stopped him.
‘You have told me everything,’ she said, ‘but the chief thing you concealed.’
‘You are going to be married, I’m told?’
Litvinov blushed up to his ears.... As a fact, he had intentionally not referred to Tanya; but he felt horribly vexed, first, that Irina knew about his marriage, and, secondly, that she had, as it were, convicted him of a desire to-137- conceal it from her. He was completely at a loss what to say, while Irina did not take her eyes off him.
‘Yes, I am going to be married,’ he said at last, and at once withdrew.
Ratmirov came back into the room.
‘Well, why aren’t you dressed?’ he asked.
‘You can go alone; my head aches.’
‘But the princess....’
Irina scanned her husband from head to foot in one look, turned her back upon him, and went away to her boudoir.