Litvinov felt much annoyed with himself, as though he had lost money at roulette, or failed to keep his word. An inward voice told him that he—on the eve of marriage, a man of sober sense, not a boy—ought not to have given way to the promptings of curiosity, nor the allurements of recollection. ‘Much need there was to go!’ he reflected. ‘On her side simply flirtation, whim, caprice.... She’s bored, she’s sick of everything, she clutched at me ... as some one pampered with dainties will suddenly long for black bread ... well, that’s natural enough.... But why did I go? Can I feel anything but contempt for her?’ This last phrase he could not utter even in thought without an effort.... ‘Of course, there’s no kind of danger, and never could be,’ he pursued his reflections. ‘I know whom I have to deal with. But still one ought not to play with fire.... I’ll never set my foot in her place again.’ Litvinov dared not, or could not-139- as yet, confess to himself how beautiful Irina had seemed to him, how powerfully she had worked upon his feelings.
Again the day passed dully and drearily. At dinner, Litvinov chanced to sit beside a majestic belhomme, with dyed moustaches, who said nothing, and only panted and rolled his eyes ... but, being suddenly taken with a hiccup, proved himself to be a fellow-countryman, by at once exclaiming, with feeling, in Russian, ‘There, I said I ought not to eat melons!’ In the evening, too, nothing happened to compensate for a lost day; Bindasov, before Litvinov’s very eyes, won a sum four times what he had borrowed from him, but, far from repaying his debt, he positively glared in his face with a menacing air, as though he were prepared to borrow more from him just because he had been a witness of his winnings. The next morning he was again invaded by a host of his compatriots; Litvinov got rid of them with difficulty, and setting off to the mountains, he first came across Irina—he pretended not to recognise her, and passed quickly by—and then Potugin. He was about to begin a conversation with Potugin, but the latter did not respond to him readily. He was leading by the hand a smartly dressed little girl, with fluffy, almost white curls, large black eyes, and a pale, sickly-140- little face, with that peculiar peremptory and impatient expression characteristic of spoiled children. Litvinov spent two hours in the mountains, and then went back homewards along the Lichtenthaler Allee.... A lady, sitting on a bench, with a blue veil over her face, got up quickly, and came up to him.... He recognised Irina.
‘Why do you avoid me, Grigory Mihalitch?’ she said, in the unsteady voice of one who is boiling over within.
Litvinov was taken aback. ‘I avoid you, Irina Pavlovna?’
‘Yes, you ... you——’
Irina seemed excited, almost angry.
‘You are mistaken, I assure you.’
‘No, I am not mistaken. Do you suppose this morning—when we met, I mean—do you suppose I didn’t see that you knew me? Do you mean to say you did not know me? Tell me.’
‘I really ... Irina Pavlovna——’
‘Grigory Mihalitch, you’re a straightforward man, you have always told the truth; tell me, tell me, you knew me, didn’t you? you turned away on purpose?’
Litvinov glanced at Irina. Her eyes shone with a strange light, while her cheeks and lips were of a deathly pallor under the thick net of-141- her veil. In the expression of her face, in the very sound of her abruptly jerked-out whisper, there was something so irresistibly mournful, beseeching ... Litvinov could not pretend any longer.
‘Yes ... I knew you,’ he uttered not without effort.
Irina slowly shuddered, and slowly dropped her hands.
‘Why did you not come up to me?’ she whispered.
‘Why ... why!’ Litvinov moved on one side, away from the path, Irina followed him in silence. ‘Why?’ he repeated once more, and suddenly his face was aflame, and he felt his chest and throat choking with a passion akin to hatred. ‘You ... you ask such a question, after all that has passed between us? Not now, of course, not now; but there ... there ... in Moscow.’
‘But, you know, we decided; you know, you promised——’ Irina was beginning.
‘I have promised nothing! Pardon the harshness of my expressions, but you ask for the truth—so think for yourself: to what but a caprice—incomprehensible, I confess, to me—to what but a desire to try how much power you still have over me, can I attribute your ... I don’t know what to call it ... your-142- persistence? Our paths have lain so far apart! I have forgotten it all, I’ve lived through all that suffering long ago, I’ve become a different man completely; you are married—happy, at least, in appearance—you fill an envied position in the world; what’s the object, what’s the use of our meeting? What am I to you? what are you to me? We cannot even understand each other now; there is absolutely nothing in common between us now, neither in the past nor in the present! Especially ... especially in the past!’
Litvinov uttered all this speech hurriedly, jerkily, without turning his head. Irina did not stir, except from time to time she faintly stretched her hands out to him. It seemed as though she were beseeching him to stop and listen to her, while, at his last words, she slightly bit her lower lip, as though to master the pain of a sharp, rapid wound.
‘Grigory Mihalitch,’ she began at last, in a calmer voice; and she moved still further away from the path, along which people from time to time passed.
Litvinov in his turn followed her.
‘Grigory Mihalitch, believe me, if I could imagine I had one hair’s-breadth of power over you left, I would be the first to avoid you. If I have not done so, if I made up my mind, in-143- spite of my ... of the wrong I did you in the past, to renew my acquaintance with you, it was because ... because——’
‘Because what?’ asked Litvinov, almost rudely.
‘Because,’ Irina declared with sudden force—‘it’s too insufferable, too unbearably stifling for me in society, in the envied position you talk about; because meeting you, a live man, after all these dead puppets—you have seen samples of them three days ago, there au Vieux Château,—I rejoice over you as an oasis in the desert, while you suspect me of flirting, and despise me and repulse me on the ground that I wronged you—as indeed I did—but far more myself!’
‘You chose your lot yourself, Irina Pavlovna,’ Litvinov rejoined sullenly, as before not turning his head.
‘I chose it myself, yes ... and I don’t complain, I have no right to complain,’ said Irina hurriedly; she seemed to derive a secret consolation from Litvinov’s very harshness. ‘I know that you must think ill of me, and I won’t justify myself; I only want to explain my feeling to you, I want to convince you I am in no flirting humour now.... Me flirting with you! Why, there is no sense in it.... When I saw you, all that was good, that was young in-144- me, revived ... that time when I had not yet chosen my lot, everything that lies behind in that streak of brightness behind those ten years....’
‘Come, really, Irina Pavlovna! So far as I am aware, the brightness in your life began precisely with the time we separated....’
Irina put her handkerchief to her lips.
‘That’s very cruel, what you say, Grigory Mihalitch; but I can’t feel angry with you. Oh, no, that was not a bright time, it was not for happiness I left Moscow; I have known not one moment, not one instant of happiness ... believe me, whatever you have been told. If I were happy, could I talk to you as I am talking now.... I repeat to you, you don’t know what these people are.... Why, they understand nothing, feel for nothing; they’ve no intelligence even, ni esprit ni intelligence, nothing but tact and cunning; why, in reality, music and poetry and art are all equally remote from them.... You will say that I was rather indifferent to all that myself; but not to the same degree, Grigory Mihalitch ... not to the same degree! It’s not a woman of the world before you now, you need only look at me—not a society queen.... That’s what they call us, I believe ... but a poor, poor creature, really deserving of pity. Don’t wonder at my words....-145- I am beyond feeling pride now! I hold out my hand to you as a beggar, will you understand, just as a beggar.... I ask for charity,’ she added suddenly, in an involuntary, irrepressible outburst, ‘I ask for charity, and you——’
Her voice broke. Litvinov raised his head and looked at Irina; her breathing came quickly, her lips were quivering. Suddenly his heart beat fast, and the feeling of hatred vanished.
‘You say that our paths have lain apart,’ Irina went on. ‘I know you are about to marry from inclination, you have a plan laid out for your whole life; yes, that’s all so, but we have not become strangers to one another, Grigory Mihalitch; we can still understand each other. Or do you imagine I have grown altogether dull—altogether debased in the mire? Ah, no, don’t think that, please! Let me open my heart, I beseech you—there—even for the sake of those old days, if you are not willing to forget them. Do so, that our meeting may not have come to pass in vain; that would be too bitter; it would not last long in any case.... I don’t know how to say it properly, but you will understand me, because I ask for little, so little ... only a little sympathy, only that you should not repulse me, that you should let me open my heart—-146-—’
Irina ceased speaking, there were tears in her voice. She sighed, and timidly, with a kind of furtive, searching look, gazed at Litvinov, held out her hand to him....
Litvinov slowly took the hand and faintly pressed it.
‘Let us be friends,’ whispered Irina.
‘Friends,’ repeated Litvinov dreamily.
‘Yes, friends ... or if that is too much to ask, then let us at least be friendly.... Let us be simply as though nothing had happened.’
‘As though nothing had happened,...’ repeated Litvinov again. ‘You said just now, Irina Pavlovna, that I was unwilling to forget the old days.... But what if I can’t forget them?’
A blissful smile flashed over Irina’s face, and at once disappeared, to be replaced by a harassed, almost scared expression.
‘Be like me, Grigory Mihalitch, remember only what was good in them; and most of all, give me your word.... Your word of honour....’
‘Not to avoid me ... not to hurt me for nothing. You promise? tell me!’
‘And you will dismiss all evil thoughts of me from your mind.’
‘Yes ... but as for understanding you—I give it up.’
‘There’s no need of that ... wait a little, though, you will understand. But you will promise?’
‘I have said yes already.’
‘Thanks. You see I am used to believe you. I shall expect you to-day, to-morrow, I will not go out of the house. And now I must leave you. The Grand Duchess is coming along the avenue.... She’s caught sight of me, and I can’t avoid going up to speak to her.... Good-bye till we meet.... Give me your hand, vite, vite. Till we meet.’
And warmly pressing Litvinov’s hand, Irina walked towards a middle-aged person of dignified appearance, who was coming slowly along the gravel path, escorted by two other ladies, and a strikingly handsome groom in livery.
‘Eh bonjour, chère Madame,’ said the personage, while Irina curtseyed respectfully to her. ‘Comment allez-vous aujourd’hui? Venez un peu avec moi.’
‘Votre Altesse a trop de bonté,’ Irina’s insinuating voice was heard in reply.