‘Grigory,’ Irina was saying to him two hours later, as she sat beside him on the sofa, and laid both hands on his shoulder, ‘what is the matter with you? Tell me now quickly, while we’re alone.’
‘The matter with me?’ said Litvinov. ‘I am happy, happy, that’s what’s the matter with me.’
Irina looked down, smiled, sighed.
‘That’s not an answer to my question, my dear one.’
Litvinov grew thoughtful.
‘Well, let me tell you then ... since you insist positively on it’ (Irina opened her eyes wide and trembled slightly), ‘I have told everything to-day to my betrothed.’
‘What, everything? You mentioned me?’
Litvinov fairly threw up his arms.
‘Irina, for God’s sake, how could such an idea enter your head! that I——’
‘There, forgive me ... forgive me. What did you say?’
‘I told her that I no longer loved her.’
‘She asked why?’
‘I did not disguise the fact that I loved another woman, and that we must part.’
‘Ah ... and what did she do? Agreed?’
‘O Irina! what a girl she is! She was all self-sacrifice, all generosity!’
‘I’ve no doubt, I’ve no doubt ... there was nothing else for her to do, though.’
‘And not one reproach, not one hard word to me, who have spoiled her whole life, deceived her, pitilessly flung her over....’
Irina scrutinised her finger nails.
‘Tell me, Grigory ... did she love you?’
‘Yes, Irina, she loved me.’
Irina was silent a minute, she straightened her dress.
‘I must confess,’ she began, ‘I don’t quite understand what induced you to explain matters to her.’
‘What induced me, Irina! Would you have liked me to lie, to be a hypocrite to her, that pure soul? or did you suppose——’
‘I supposed nothing,’ Irina interrupted. ‘I must admit I have thought very little about her. I don’t know how to think of two people at once.’
‘That is, you mean——’
‘Well, and so what then? Is she going-251- away, that pure soul?’ Irina interrupted a second time.
‘I know nothing,’ answered Litvinov. ‘I am to see her again. But she will not stay.’
‘Ah! bon voyage!’
‘No, she will not stay. But I’m not thinking of her either now, I am thinking of what you said to me, what you have promised me.’
Irina looked up at him from under her eyelids.
‘Ungrateful one! aren’t you content yet?’
‘No, Irina, I’m not content. You have made me happy, but I’m not content, and you understand me.’
‘That is, I——’
‘Yes, you understand me. Remember your words, remember what you wrote to me. I can’t share you with others; no, no, I can’t consent to the pitiful rôle of secret lover; not my life alone, this other life too I have flung at your feet, I have renounced everything, I have crushed it all to dust, without compunction and beyond recall; but in return I trust, I firmly believe, that you too will keep your promise, and unite your lot with mine for ever.’
‘You want me to run away with you? I am ready....’ (Litvinov bent down to her hands in ecstasy.) ‘I am ready. I will not go back from my word. But have you yourself thought-252- over all the difficulties—have you made preparations?’
‘I? I have not had time yet to think over or prepare anything, but only say yes, let me act, and before a month is over....’
‘A month! we start for Italy in a fortnight.’
‘A fortnight, then, is enough for me. O Irina, you seem to take my proposition coldly; perhaps it seems unpractical to you, but I am not a boy, I am not used to comforting myself with dreams, I know what a tremendous step this is, I know what a responsibility I am taking on myself; but I can see no other course. Think of it, I must break every tie with the past, if only not to be a contemptible liar in the eyes of the girl I have sacrificed for you!’
Irina drew herself up suddenly and her eyes flashed.
‘Oh, I beg your pardon, Grigory Mihalitch! If I decide, if I run away, then it will at least be with a man who does it for my sake, for my sake simply, and not in order that he may not degrade himself in the good opinion of a phlegmatic young person, with milk and water, du lait coupé instead of blood, in her veins! And I must tell you too, it’s the first time, I confess, that it’s been my lot to hear that the man I honour with my regard is deserving of commiseration,-253- playing a pitiful part! I know a far more pitiful part, the part of a man who doesn’t know what is going on in his own heart!’
Litvinov drew himself up in his turn.
‘Irina,’ he was beginning——
But all at once she clapped both hands to her forehead, and with a convulsive motion, flinging herself on his breast, she embraced him with force beyond a woman’s.
‘Forgive me, forgive me,’ she began, with a shaking voice, ‘forgive me, Grigory! You see how corrupted I am, how horrid I am, how jealous and wicked! You see how I need your aid, your indulgence! Yes, save me, drag me out of this mire, before I am quite ruined! Yes, let us run away, let us run away from these people, from this society to some far off, fair, free country! Perhaps your Irina will at last be worthier of the sacrifices you are making for her! Don’t be angry with me, forgive me, my sweet, and know that I will do everything you command, I will go anywhere you will take me!’
Litvinov’s heart was in a turmoil. Irina clung closer than before to him with all her youthful supple body. He bent over her fragrant, disordered tresses, and in an intoxication of gratitude and ecstasy, he hardly dared to caress them with his hand, he hardly touched them with his lips.
‘Irina, Irina,’ he repeated,—‘my angel....’
She suddenly raised her head, listened....
‘It’s my husband’s step, ... he has gone into his room,’ she whispered, and, moving hurriedly away, she crossed over to another armchair. Litvinov was getting up.... ‘What are you doing?’ she went on in the same whisper; ‘you must stay, he suspects you as it is. Or are you afraid of him?’ She did not take her eyes off the door. ‘Yes, it’s he; he will come in here directly. Tell me something, talk to me.’ Litvinov could not at once recover himself and was silent. ‘Aren’t you going to the theatre to-morrow?’ she uttered aloud. ‘They’re giving Le Verre d’Eau, an old-fashioned piece, and Plessy is awfully affected.... We’re as though we were in a perfect fever,’ she added, dropping her voice. ‘We can’t do anything like this; we must think things over well. I ought to warn you that all my money is in his hands; mais j’ai mes bijoux. We’ll go to Spain, would you like that?’ She raised her voice again. ‘Why is it all actresses get so fat? Madeleine Brohan for instance.... Do talk, don’t sit so silent. My head is going round. But you, you must not doubt me.... I will let you know where to come to-morrow. Only it was a mistake to have told that young lady.... Ah, mais c’est charmant!’ she cried suddenly and with a nervous-255- laugh, she tore the lace edge of her handkerchief.
‘May I come in?’ asked Ratmirov from the other room.
‘Yes ... yes.’
The door opened, and in the doorway appeared the general. He scowled on seeing Litvinov; however, he bowed to them, that is to say, he bent the upper portion of his person.
‘I did not know you had a visitor,’ he said: ‘je vous demande pardon de mon indiscrétion. So you still find Baden entertaining, M’sieu—Litvinov?’
Ratmirov always uttered Litvinov’s surname with hesitation, every time, as though he had forgotten it, and could not at once recall it.... In this way, as well as by the lofty flourish of his hat in saluting him, he meant to insult his pride.
‘I am not bored here, m’sieu le général.’
‘Really? Well, I find Baden fearfully boring. We are soon going away, are we not, Irina Pavlovna? Assez de Bade comme ça. By the way, I’ve won you five hundred francs to-day.’
Irina stretched out her hand coquettishly.
‘Where are they? Please let me have them for pin-money.’
‘You shall have them, you shall have them.... You are going, M’sieu—Litvinov?’
‘Yes, I am going, as you see.’
Ratmirov again bent his body.
‘Till we meet again!’
‘Good-bye, Grigory Mihalitch,’ said Irina. ‘I will keep my promise.’
‘What is that? May I be inquisitive?’ her husband queried.
‘No, it was only ... something we’ve been talking of. C’est à propos du voyage ... où il vous plaira. You know—Stael’s book?’
‘Ah! ah! to be sure, I know. Charming illustrations.’
Ratmirov seemed on the best of terms with his wife; he called her by her pet name in addressing her.