Litvinov let the Grand Duchess and all her suite get out of sight, and then he too went along the avenue. He could not make up his mind clearly what he was feeling; he was conscious both of shame and dread, while his vanity was flattered.... The unexpected explanation with Irina had taken him utterly by surprise; her rapid burning words had passed over him like a thunder-storm. ‘Queer creatures these society women,’ he thought; ‘there’s no consistency in them ... and how perverted they are by the surroundings in which they go on living, while they’re conscious of its hideousness themselves!’... In reality he was not thinking this at all, but only mechanically repeating these hackneyed phrases, as though he were trying to ward off other more painful thoughts. He felt that he must not think seriously just now, that he would probably have to blame himself, and he moved with lagging steps, almost forcing himself to pay attention to-149- everything that happened to meet him.... He suddenly found himself before a seat, caught sight of some one’s legs in front of it, and looked upwards from them.... The legs belonged to a man, sitting on the seat, and reading a newspaper; this man turned out to be Potugin. Litvinov uttered a faint exclamation. Potugin laid the paper down on his knees, and looked attentively, without a smile, at Litvinov; and Litvinov also attentively, and also without a smile, looked at Potugin.
‘May I sit by you?’ he asked at last.
‘By all means, I shall be delighted. Only I warn you, if you want to have a talk with me, you mustn’t be offended with me—I’m in a most misanthropic humour just now, and I see everything in an exaggeratedly repulsive light.’
‘That’s no matter, Sozont Ivanitch,’ responded Litvinov, sinking down on the seat, ‘indeed it’s particularly appropriate.... But why has such a mood come over you?’
‘I ought not by rights to be ill-humoured,’ began Potugin. ‘I’ve just read in the paper a project for judicial reforms in Russia, and I see with genuine pleasure that we’ve got some sense at last, and they’re not as usual on the pretext of independence, nationalism, or originality, proposing to tack a little home-made tag of our own on to the clear-150- straightforward logic of Europe; but are taking what’s good from abroad intact. A single adaptation in its application to the peasants’ sphere is enough.... There’s no doing away with communal ownership!... Certainly, certainly, I ought not to be ill-humoured; but to my misfortune I chanced upon a Russian “rough diamond,” and had a talk with him, and these rough diamonds, these self-educated geniuses, would make me turn in my grave!’
‘What do you mean by a rough diamond?’ asked Litvinov.
‘Why, there’s a gentleman disporting himself here, who imagines he’s a musical genius. “I have done nothing, of course,” he’ll tell you. “I’m a cipher, because I’ve had no training, but I’ve incomparably more melody and more ideas in me than in Meyerbeer.” In the first place, I say: why have you had no training? and secondly, that, not to talk of Meyerbeer, the humblest German flute-player, modestly blowing his part in the humblest German orchestra, has twenty times as many ideas as all our untaught geniuses; only the flute-player keeps his ideas to himself, and doesn’t trot them out with a flourish in the land of Mozarts and Haydns; while our friend the rough diamond has only to strum some little waltz or song, and at once you see him with his hands-151- in his trouser pocket and a sneer of contempt on his lips: I’m a genius, he says. And in painting it’s just the same, and in everything else. Oh, these natural geniuses, how I hate them! As if every one didn’t know that it’s only where there’s no real science fully assimilated, and no real art, that there’s this flaunting affectation of them. Surely it’s time to have done with this flaunting, this vulgar twaddle, together with all hackneyed phrases such as “no one ever dies of hunger in Russia,” “nowhere is there such fast travelling as in Russia,” “we Russians could bury all our enemies under our hats.” I’m for ever hearing of the richness of the Russian nature, their unerring instinct, and of Kulibin.... But what is this richness, after all, gentlemen? Half-awakened mutterings or else half-animal sagacity. Instinct, indeed! A fine boast. Take an ant in a forest and set it down a mile from its ant-hill, it will find its way home; man can do nothing like it; but what of it? do you suppose he’s inferior to the ant? Instinct, be it ever so unerring, is unworthy of man; sense, simple, straightforward, common sense—that’s our heritage, our pride; sense won’t perform any such tricks, but it’s that that everything rests upon. As for Kulibin, who without any knowledge of mechanics succeeded in making some very bad-152- watches, why, I’d have those watches set up in the pillory, and say: see, good people, this is the way not to do it. Kulibin’s not to blame for it, but his work’s rubbish. To admire Telushkin’s boldness and cleverness because he climbed on to the Admiralty spire is well enough; why not admire him? But there’s no need to shout that he’s made the German architects look foolish, that they’re no good, except at making money.... He’s not made them look foolish in the least; they had to put a scaffolding round the spire afterwards, and repair it in the usual way. For mercy’s sake, never encourage the idea in Russia that anything can be done without training. No; you may have the brain of a Solomon, but you must study, study from the A B C. Or else hold your tongue, and sit still, and be humble! Phoo! it makes one hot all over!’
Potugin took off his hat and began fanning himself with his handkerchief.
‘Russian art,’ he began again. ‘Russian art, indeed!... Russian impudence and conceit, I know, and Russian feebleness too, but Russian art, begging your pardon, I’ve never come across. For twenty years on end they’ve been doing homage to that bloated nonentity Bryullov, and fancying that we have founded a school of our own, and even that it will be-153- better than all others.... Russian art, ha, ha, ha! ho, ho!’
‘Excuse me, though, Sozont Ivanitch,’ remarked Litvinov, ‘would you refuse to recognise Glinka too, then?’
Potugin scratched his head.
‘The exception, you know, only proves the rule, but even in that instance we could not dispense with bragging. If we’d said, for example, that Glinka was really a remarkable musician, who was only prevented by circumstances—outer and inner—from becoming the founder of the Russian opera, none would have disputed it; but no, that was too much to expect! They must at once raise him to the dignity of commander-in-chief, of grand-marshal, in the musical world, and disparage other nations while they were about it; they have nothing to compare with him, they declare, then quote you some marvellous home-bred genius whose compositions are nothing but a poor imitation of second-rate foreign composers, yes, second-rate ones, for they’re the easiest to imitate. Nothing to compare with him? Oh, poor benighted barbarians, for whom standards in art are non-existent, and artists are something of the same species as the strong man Rappo: there’s a foreign prodigy, they say, can lift fifteen stone in one hand, but our man-154- can lift thirty! Nothing to compare with us, indeed! I will venture to tell you some thing I remember, and can’t get out of my head. Last spring I visited the Crystal Palace near London; in that Palace, as you’re aware, there’s a sort of exhibition of everything that has been devised by the ingenuity of man—an encyclopædia of humanity one might call it. Well, I walked to and fro among the machines and implements and statues of great men; and all the while I thought, if it were decreed that some nation or other should disappear from the face of the earth, and with it everything that nation had invented, should disappear from the Crystal Palace, our dear mother, Holy Russia, could go and hide herself in the lower regions, without disarranging a single nail in the place: everything might remain undisturbed where it is; for even the samovar, the woven bast shoes, the yoke-bridle, and the knout—these are our famous products—were not invented by us. One could not carry out the same experiment on the Sandwich islanders; those islanders have made some peculiar canoes and javelins of their own; their absence would be noticed by visitors. It’s a libel! it’s too severe, you say perhaps.... But I say, first, I don’t know how to roar like any sucking dove; and secondly, it’s plain that it’s not only the devil no one dares to look-155- straight in the face, for no one dares to look straight at himself, and it’s not only children who like being soothed to sleep. Our older inventions came to us from the East, our later ones we’ve borrowed, and half spoiled, from the West, while we still persist in talking about the independence of Russian art! Some bold spirits have even discovered an original Russian science; twice two makes four with us as elsewhere, but the result’s obtained more ingeniously, it appears.’
‘But wait a minute, Sozont Ivanitch,’ cried Litvinov. ‘Do wait a minute! You know we send something to the universal exhibitions, and doesn’t Europe import something from us.’
‘Yes, raw material, raw products. And note, my dear sir: this raw produce of ours is generally only good by virtue of other exceedingly bad conditions; our bristles, for instance, are large and strong, because our pigs are poor; our hides are stout and thick because our cows are thin; our tallow’s rich because it’s boiled down with half the flesh.... But why am I enlarging on that to you, though; you are a student of technology, to be sure, you must know all that better than I do. They talk to me of our inventive faculty! The inventive faculty of the Russians! Why our worthy farmers complain bitterly and suffer loss because-156- there’s no satisfactory machine for drying grain in existence, to save them from the necessity of putting their sheaves in ovens, as they did in the days of Rurik; these ovens are fearfully wasteful—just as our bast shoes and our Russian mats are,—and they are constantly getting on fire. The farmers complain, but still there’s no sign of a drying-machine. And why is there none? Because the German farmer doesn’t need them; he can thrash his wheat as it is, so he doesn’t bother to invent one, and we ... are not capable of doing it! Not capable—and that’s all about it! Try as we may! From this day forward I declare whenever I come across one of those rough diamonds, these self-taught geniuses, I shall say: “Stop a minute, my worthy friend! Where’s that drying-machine? let’s have it!” But that’s beyond them! Picking up some old cast-off shoe, dropped ages ago by St. Simon or Fourier, and sticking it on our heads and treating it as a sacred relic—that’s what we’re capable of; or scribbling an article on the historical and contemporary significance of the proletariat in the principal towns of France—that we can do too; but I tried once, asking a writer and political economist of that sort—rather like your friend, Mr. Voroshilov—to mention twenty towns in France, and what do-157- you think came of that? Why the economist in despair at last mentioned Mont-Fermeuil as one of the French towns, remembering it probably from some novel of Paul de Kock’s. And that reminds me of the following anecdote. I was one day strolling through a wood with a dog and a gun——’
‘Are you a sportsman then?’ asked Litvinov.
‘I shoot a little. I was making my way to a swamp in search of snipe; I’d been told of the swamp by other sportsmen. I saw sitting in a clearing before a hut a timber merchant’s clerk, as fresh and smooth as a peeled nut, he was sitting there, smiling away—what at, I can’t say. So I asked him: “Whereabouts was the swamp, and were there many snipe in it?” “To be sure, to be sure,” he sang out promptly, and with an expression of face as though I’d given him a rouble; “the swamp’s first-rate, I’m thankful to say; and as for all kinds of wild fowl,—my goodness, they’re to be found there in wonderful plenty.” I set off, but not only found no wild fowl, the swamp itself had been dry for a long time. Now tell me, please, why is the Russian a liar? Why does the political economist lie, and why the lie about the wild fowl too?’
Litvinov made no answer, but only sighed sympathetically.
‘But turn the conversation with the same political economist,’ pursued Potugin, ‘on the most abstruse problems of social science, keeping to theory, without facts...!—he takes flight like a bird, a perfect eagle. I did once succeed, though, in catching one of those birds. I used a pretty snare, though an obvious one, as you shall see if you please. I was talking with one of our latter-day “new young men” about various questions, as they call them. Well, he got very hot, as they always do. Marriage among other things he attacked with really childish exasperation. I brought forward one argument after another.... I might as well have talked to a stone wall! I saw I should never get round him like that. And then I had a happy thought! “Allow me to submit to you,” I began,—one must always talk very respectfully to these “new young men”—“I am really surprised at you, my dear sir; you are studying natural science, and your attention has never up till now been caught by the fact that all carnivorous and predatory animals—wild beasts and birds—all who have to go out in search of prey, and to exert themselves to obtain animal food for themselves and their young ... and I suppose you would include man in the category of such animals?” “Of course, I should,” said the “new young man,-159-” “man is nothing but a carnivorous animal.” “And predatory?” I added. “And predatory,” he declared. “Well said,” I observed. “Well, then I am surprised you’ve never noticed that such animals live in monogamy.” The “new young man” started. “How so?” “Why, it is so. Think of the lion, the wolf, the fox, the vulture, the kite; and, indeed, would you condescend to suggest how they could do otherwise. It’s hard work enough for the two together to get a living for their offspring.” My “new young man” grew thoughtful. “Well,” says he, “in that case the animal is not a rule for man.” Thereupon I called him an idealist, and wasn’t he hurt at that! He almost cried. I had to comfort him by promising not to tell of him to his friends. To deserve to be called an idealist is no laughing matter! The main point in which our latter-day young people are out in their reckoning is this. They fancy that the time for the old, obscure, underground work is over, that it was all very well for their old-fashioned fathers to burrow like moles, but that’s too humiliating a part for us, we will take action in the light of day, we will take action.... Poor darlings! why your children even won’t take action; and don’t you care to go back to burrowing, burrowing underground again in the old tracks?’
A brief silence followed.
‘I am of opinion, my dear sir,’ began Potugin again, ‘that we are not only indebted to civilisation for science, art, and law, but that even the very feeling for beauty and poetry is developed and strengthened under the influence of the same civilisation, and that the so-called popular, simple, unconscious creation is twaddling and rubbishy. Even in Homer there are traces of a refined and varied civilisation; love itself is enriched by it. The Slavophils would cheerfully hang me for such a heresy, if they were not such chicken-hearted creatures; but I will stick up for my own ideas all the same; and however much they press Madame Kohanovsky and “The swarm of bees at rest” upon me,—I can’t stand the odour of that triple extrait de mougik Russe, as I don’t belong to the highest society, which finds it absolutely necessary to assure itself from time to time that it has not turned quite French, and for whose exclusive benefit this literature en cuir de Russie is manufactured. Try reading the raciest, most “popular” passages from the “Bees” to a common peasant—a real one; he’ll think you’re repeating him a new spell against fever or drunkenness. I repeat, without civilisation there’s not even poetry. If you want to get a clear idea of the poetic ideal of the uncivilised-161- Russian, you should turn up our ballads, our legends. To say nothing of the fact that love is always presented as the result of witchcraft, of sorcery, and produced by some philtre, to say nothing of our so-called epic literature being the only one among all the European and Asiatic literatures—the only one, observe, which does not present any typical pair of lovers—unless you reckon Vanka-Tanka as such; and of the Holy Russian knight always beginning his acquaintance with his destined bride by beating her “most pitilessly” on her white body, because “the race of women is puffed up”! all that I pass over; but I should like to call your attention to the artistic form of the young hero, the jeune premier, as he was depicted by the imagination of the primitive, uncivilised Slav. Just fancy him a minute; the jeune premier enters; a cloak he has worked himself of sable, back-stitched along every seam, a sash of seven-fold silk girt close about his armpits, his fingers hidden away under his hanging sleevelets, the collar of his coat raised high above his head, from before, his rosy face no man can see, nor, from behind, his little white neck; his cap is on one ear, while on his feet are boots of morocco, with points as sharp as a cobbler’s awl, and the heels peaked like nails. Round the points an egg can be rolled, and a sparrow-162- can fly under the heels. And the young hero advances with that peculiar mincing gait by means of which our Alcibiades, Tchivilo Plenkovitch, produced such a striking, almost medical, effect on old women and young girls, the same gait which we see in our loose-limbed waiters, that cream, that flower of Russian dandyism, that ne plus ultra of Russian taste. This I maintain without joking; a sack-like gracefulness, that’s an artistic ideal. What do you think, is it a fine type? Does it present many materials for painting, for sculpture? And the beauty who fascinates the young hero, whose “face is as red as the blood of the hare”?... But I think you’re not listening to me?’
Litvinov started. He had not, in fact, heard what Potugin was saying; he kept thinking, persistently thinking of Irina, of his last interview with her....
‘I beg your pardon, Sozont Ivanitch,’ he began, ‘but I’m going to attack you again with my former question about ... about Madame Ratmirov.’
Potugin folded up his newspaper and put it in his pocket.
‘You want to know again how I came to know her?’
‘No, not exactly. I should like to hear your-163- opinion ... on the part she played in Petersburg. What was that part, in reality?’
‘I really don’t know what to say to you, Grigory Mihalitch; I was brought into rather intimate terms with Madame Ratmirov ... but quite accidentally, and not for long. I never got an insight into her world, and what took place in it remained unknown to me. There was some gossip before me, but as you know, it’s not only in democratic circles that slander reigns supreme among us. Besides I was not inquisitive. I see though,’ he added, after a short silence, ‘she interests you.’
‘Yes; we have twice talked together rather openly. I ask myself, though, is she sincere?’
Potugin looked down. ‘When she is carried away by feeling, she is sincere, like all women of strong passions. Pride too, sometimes prevents her from lying.’
‘Is she proud? I should rather have supposed she was capricious.’
‘Proud as the devil; but that’s no harm.’
‘I fancy she sometimes exaggerates....’
‘That’s nothing either, she’s sincere all the same. Though after all, how can you expect truth? The best of those society women are rotten to the marrow of their bones.’
‘But, Sozont Ivanitch, if you remember, you-164- called yourself her friend. Didn’t you drag me almost by force to go and see her?’
‘What of that? she asked me to get hold of you; and I thought, why not? And I really am her friend. She has her good qualities: she’s very kind, that is to say, generous, that’s to say she gives others what she has no sort of need of herself. But of course you must know her at least as well as I do.’
‘I used to know Irina Pavlovna ten years ago; but since then——’
‘Ah, Grigory Mihalitch, why do you say that? Do you suppose any one’s character changes? Such as one is in one’s cradle, such one is still in one’s tomb. Or perhaps it is’ (here Potugin bowed his head still lower) ‘perhaps, you’re afraid of falling into her clutches? that’s certainly ... But of course one is bound to fall into some woman’s clutches.’
Litvinov gave a constrained laugh. ‘You think so?’
‘There’s no escape. Man is weak, woman is strong, opportunity is all-powerful, to make up one’s mind to a joyless life is hard, to forget oneself utterly is impossible ... and on one side is beauty and sympathy and warmth and light,—how is one to resist it? Why, one runs like a child to its nurse. Ah, well, afterwards to be sure comes cold and darkness and emptiness ...-165- in due course. And you end by being strange to everything, by losing comprehension of everything. At first you don’t understand how love is possible; afterwards one won’t understand how life is possible.’
Litvinov looked at Potugin, and it struck him that he had never yet met a man more lonely, more desolate ... more unhappy. This time he was not shy, he was not stiff; downcast and pale, his head on his breast, and his hands on his knees, he sat without moving, merely smiling his dejected smile. Litvinov felt sorry for the poor, embittered, eccentric creature.
‘Irina Pavlovna mentioned among other things,’ he began in a low voice, ‘a very intimate friend of hers, whose name if I remember was Byelsky, or Dolsky....’
Potugin raised his mournful eyes and looked at Litvinov.
‘Ah!’ he commented thickly.... ‘She mentioned ... well, what of it? It’s time, though,’ he added with a rather artificial yawn, ‘for me to be getting home—to dinner. Good-bye.’
He jumped up from the seat and made off quickly before Litvinov had time to utter a word.... His compassion gave way to annoyance—annoyance with himself, be it understood. Want of consideration of any kind was foreign to his nature; he had wished to express his-166- sympathy for Potugin, and it had resulted in something like a clumsy insinuation. With secret dissatisfaction in his heart, he went back to his hotel.
‘Rotten to the marrow of her bones,’ he thought a little later ... ‘but proud as the devil! She, that woman who is almost on her knees to me, proud? proud and not capricious?’
Litvinov tried to drive Irina’s image out of his head, but he did not succeed. For this very reason he did not think of his betrothed; he felt to-day this haunting image would not give up its place. He made up his mind to await without further anxiety the solution of all this ‘strange business’; the solution could not be long in coming, and Litvinov had not the slightest doubt it would turn out to be most innocent and natural. So he fancied, but meanwhile he was not only haunted by Lina’s image—every word she had uttered kept recurring in its turn to his memory.
The waiter brought him a note: it was from the same Irina:
‘If you have nothing to do this evening, come to me; I shall not be alone; I shall have guests, and you will get a closer view of our set, our society. I want you very much to see something of them; I fancy they will show themselves in all their brilliance. You-167- ought to know what sort of atmosphere I am breathing. Come; I shall be glad to see you, and you will not be bored. (Irina had spelt the Russian incorrectly here.) Prove to me that our explanation to-day has made any sort of misunderstanding between us impossible for ever.—Yours devotedly, I.
Litvinov put on a frock coat and a white tie, and set off to Irina’s. ‘All this is of no importance,’ he repeated mentally on the way, ‘as for looking at them ... why shouldn’t I have a look at them? It will be curious.’ A few days before, these very people had aroused a different sensation in him; they had aroused his indignation.
He walked with quickened steps, his cap pulled down over his eyes, and a constrained smile on his lips, while Bambaev, sitting before Weber’s café, and pointing him out from a distance to Voroshilov and Pishtchalkin, cried excitedly: ‘Do you see that man? He’s a stone! he’s a rock! he’s a flint!!!’