The next morning Litvinov had only just come home from seeing the banker, with whom he had had another conversation on the playful instability of our exchange, and the best means of sending money abroad, when the hotel porter handed him a letter. He recognised Irina’s handwriting, and without breaking the seal—a presentiment of evil, Heaven knows why, was astir in him—he went into his room. This was what he read (the letter was in French):
‘My dear one, I have been thinking all night of your plan.... I am not going to shuffle with you. You have been open with me, and I will be open with you; I cannot run away with you, I have not the strength to do it. I feel how I am wronging you; my second sin is greater than the first, I despise myself, my cowardice, I cover myself with reproaches, but I cannot change myself. In vain I tell myself that I have destroyed your happiness, that you have the right now to regard-279- me as a frivolous flirt, that I myself drew you on, that I have given you solemn promises.... I am full of horror, of hatred for myself, but I can’t do otherwise, I can’t, I can’t. I don’t want to justify myself, I won’t tell you I was carried away myself ... all that’s of no importance; but I want to tell you, and to say it again and yet again, I am yours, yours for ever, do with me as you will when you will, free from all obligation, from all responsibility! I am yours.... But run away, throw up everything ... no! no! no! I besought you to save me, I hoped to wipe out everything, to burn up the past as in a fire ... but I see there is no salvation for me; I see the poison has gone too deeply into me; I see one cannot breathe this atmosphere for years with impunity. I have long hesitated whether to write you this letter, I dread to think what decision you may come to, I trust only to your love for me. But I felt it would be dishonest on my part to hide the truth from you—especially as perhaps you have already begun to take the first steps for carrying out our project. Ah! it was lovely but impracticable. O my dear one, think me a weak, worthless woman, despise, but don’t abandon me, don’t abandon your Irina!... To leave this life I have not the courage, but live it without you I cannot either. We soon-280- go back to Petersburg, come there, live there, we will find occupation for you, your labours in the past shall not be thrown away, you shall find good use for them ... only live near me, only love me; such as I am, with all my weaknesses and my vices, and believe me, no heart will ever be so tenderly devoted to you as the heart of your Irina. Come soon to me, I shall not have an instant’s peace until I see you.—Yours, yours, yours, I.’
The blood beat like a sledge-hammer in Litvinov’s head, then slowly and painfully sank to his heart, and was chill as a stone in it. He read through Irina’s letter, and just as on that day at Moscow he fell in exhaustion on the sofa, and stayed there motionless. A dark abyss seemed suddenly to have opened on all sides of him, and he stared into this darkness in senseless despair. And so again, again deceit, no, worse than deceit, lying and baseness.... And life shattered, everything torn up by its roots utterly, and the sole thing which he could cling to—the last prop in fragments too! ‘Come after us to Petersburg,’ he repeated with a bitter inward laugh, ‘we will find you occupation.... Find me a place as a head clerk, eh? and who are we? Here there’s a hint of her past. Here we have the secret, hideous-281- something I know nothing of, but which she has been trying to wipe out, to burn as in a fire. Here we have that world of intrigues, of secret relations, of shameful stories of Byelskys and Dolskys.... And what a future, what a lovely part awaiting me! To live close to her, visit her, share with her the morbid melancholy of the lady of fashion who is sick and weary of the world, but can’t live outside its circle, be the friend of the house of course, of his Excellency ... until ... until the whim changes and the plebeian lover loses his piquancy, and is replaced by that fat general or Mr. Finikov—that’s possible and pleasant, and I dare say useful.... She talks of a good use for my talents?... but the other project’s impracticable, impracticable....’ In Litvinov’s soul rose, like sudden gusts of wind before a storm, momentary impulses of fury.... Every expression in Irina’s letter roused his indignation, her very assertions of her unchanging feelings affronted him. ‘She can’t let it go like that,’ he cried at last, ‘I won’t allow her to play with my life so mercilessly.’
Litvinov jumped up, snatched his hat. But what was he to do? Run to her? Answer her letter? He stopped short, and his hands fell.
‘Yes; what was to be done?’
Had he not himself put this fatal choice to her? It had not turned out as he had wished ... there was that risk about every choice. She had changed her mind, it was true; she herself had declared at first that she would throw up everything and follow him; that was true too; but she did not deny her guilt, she called herself a weak woman; she did not want to deceive him, she had been deceived in herself.... What answer could be made to that? At any rate she was not hypocritical, she was not deceiving him ... she was open, remorselessly open. There was nothing forced her to speak out, nothing to prevent her from soothing him with promises, putting things off, and keeping it all in uncertainty till her departure ... till her departure with her husband for Italy? But she had ruined his life, ruined two lives.... What of that?
But as regards Tatyana, she was not guilty; the guilt was his, his, Litvinov’s alone, and he had no right to shake off the responsibility his own sin had laid with iron yoke upon him.... All this was so; but what was left him to do now?
Again he flung himself on the sofa and again in gloom, darkly, dimly, without trace, with devouring swiftness, the minutes raced past....
‘And why not obey her?’ flashed through his brain. ‘She loves me, she is mine, and in our very yearning towards each other, in this passion, which after so many years has burst upon us, and forced its way out with such violence, is there not something inevitable, irresistible, like a law of nature? Live in Petersburg ... and shall I be the first to be put in such a position? And how could we be in safety together?...’
And he fell to musing, and Irina’s shape, in the guise in which it was imprinted for ever in his late memories, softly rose before him.... But not for long.... He mastered himself, and with a fresh outburst of indignation drove away from him both those memories and that seductive image.
‘You give me to drink from that golden cup,’ he cried, ‘but there is poison in the draught, and your white wings are besmirched with mire.... Away! Remain here with you after the way I ... I drove away my betrothed ... a deed of infamy, of infamy!’ He wrung his hands with anguish, and another face with the stamp of suffering on its still features, with dumb reproach in its farewell eyes, rose from the depths....
And for a long time Litvinov was in this agony still; for a long time, his tortured thought, like a man fever-stricken, tossed from side to-284- side.... He grew calm at last; at last he came to a decision. From the very first instant he had a presentiment of this decision; ... it had appeared to him at first like a distant, hardly perceptible point in the midst of the darkness and turmoil of his inward conflict; then it had begun to move nearer and nearer, till it ended by cutting with icy edge into his heart.
Litvinov once more dragged his box out of the corner, once more he packed all his things, without haste, even with a kind of stupid carefulness, rang for the waiter, paid his bill, and despatched to Irina a note in Russian to the following purport:
‘I don’t know whether you are doing me a greater wrong now than then; but I know this present blow is infinitely heavier.... It is the end. You tell me, “I cannot”; and I repeat to you, “I cannot ...” do what you want. I cannot and I don’t want to. Don’t answer me. You are not capable of giving me the only answer I would accept. I am going away to-morrow early by the first train. Good-bye, may you be happy! We shall in all probability not see each other again.’
Till night-time Litvinov did not leave his room; God knows whether he was expecting anything. About seven o’clock in the evening-285- a lady in a black mantle with a veil on her face twice approached the steps of his hotel. Moving a little aside and gazing far away into the distance, she suddenly made a resolute gesture with her hand, and for the third time went towards the steps....
‘Where are you going, Irina Pavlovna?’ she heard a voice utter with effort behind her.
She turned with nervous swiftness.... Potugin ran up to her.
She stopped short, thought a moment, and fairly flung herself towards him, took his arm, and drew him away.
‘Take me away, take me away,’ she repeated breathlessly.
‘What is it, Irina Pavlovna?’ he muttered in bewilderment.
‘Take me away,’ she reiterated with redoubled force, ‘if you don’t want me to remain for ever ... there.’
Potugin bent his head submissively, and hurriedly they went away together.
The following morning early Litvinov was perfectly ready for his journey—into his room walked ... Potugin.
He went up to him in silence, and in silence shook his hand. Litvinov, too, said nothing. Both of them wore long faces, and both vainly tried to smile.
‘I came to wish you a good journey,’ Potugin brought out at last.
‘And how did you know I was going to-day?’ asked Litvinov.
Potugin looked on the floor around him.... ‘I became aware of it ... as you see. Our last conversation took in the end such a strange turn.... I did not want to part from you without expressing my sincere good feeling for you.’
‘You have good feeling for me now ... when I am going away?’
Potugin looked mournfully at Litvinov. ‘Ah, Grigory Mihalitch, Grigory Mihalitch,’ he began with a short sigh, ‘it’s no time for that with us now, no time for delicacy or fencing. You don’t, so far as I have been able to perceive, take much interest in our national literature, and so, perhaps, you have no clear conception of Vaska Buslaev?’
‘Of Vaska Buslaev, the hero of Novgorod ... in Kirsch-Danilov’s collection.’
‘What Buslaev?’ said Litvinov, somewhat puzzled by the unexpected turn of the conversation. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, never mind. I only wanted to draw your attention to something. Vaska Buslaev, after he had taken away his Novgorodians on a-287- pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and there, to their horror, bathed all naked in the holy river Jordan, for he believed not “in omen nor in dream, nor in the flight of birds,” this logical Vaska Buslaev climbed up Mount Tabor, and on the top of this mountain there lies a great stone, over which men of every kind have tried in vain to jump.... Vaska too ventured to try his luck. And he chanced upon a dead head, a human skull in his road; he kicked it away with his foot. So the skull said to him; “Why do you kick me? I knew how to live, and I know how to roll in the dust—and it will be the same with you.” And in fact, Vaska jumps over the stone, and he did quite clear it, but he caught his heel and broke his skull. And in this place, I must by the way observe that it wouldn’t be amiss for our friends, the Slavophils, who are so fond of kicking dead heads and decaying nationalities underfoot to ponder over that legend.’
‘But what does all that mean?’ Litvinov interposed impatiently at last. ‘Excuse me, it’s time for me....’
‘Why, this,’ answered Potugin, and his eyes beamed with such affectionate warmth as Litvinov had not even expected of him, ‘this, that you do not spurn a dead human head, and for your goodness, perhaps you may succeed in-288- leaping over the fatal stone. I won’t keep you any longer, only let me embrace you at parting.’
‘I’m not going to try to leap over it even,’ Litvinov declared, kissing Potugin three times, and the bitter sensations filling his soul were replaced for an instant by pity for the poor lonely creature.
‘But I must go, I must go ...’ he moved about the room.
‘Can I carry anything for you?’ Potugin proffered his services.
‘No, thank you, don’t trouble, I can manage....’
He put on his cap, took up his bag. ‘So you say,’ he queried, stopping in the doorway, ‘you have seen her?’
‘Yes, I’ve seen her.’
‘Well ... tell me about her.’
Potugin was silent a moment. ‘She expected you yesterday ... and to-day she will expect you.’
‘Ah! Well, tell her.... No, there’s no need, no need of anything. Good-bye.... Good-bye!’
‘Good-bye, Grigory Mihalitch.... Let me say one word more to you. You still have time to listen to me; there’s more than half an hour before the train starts. You are returning to-289- Russia.... There you will ... in time ... get to work.... Allow an old chatterbox—for, alas, I am a chatterbox, and nothing more—to give you advice for your journey. Every time it is your lot to undertake any piece of work, ask yourself: Are you serving the cause of civilisation, in the true and strict sense of the word; are you promoting one of the ideals of civilisation; have your labours that educating, Europeanising character which alone is beneficial and profitable in our day among us? If it is so, go boldly forward, you are on the right path, and your work is a blessing! Thank God for it! You are not alone now. You will not be a “sower in the desert”; there are plenty of workers ... pioneers ... even among us now.... But you have no ears for this now. Good-bye, don’t forget me!’
Litvinov descended the staircase at a run, flung himself into a carriage, and drove to the station, not once looking round at the town where so much of his personal life was left behind. He abandoned himself, as it were, to the tide; it snatched him up and bore him along, and he firmly resolved not to struggle against it ... all other exercise of independent will he renounced.
He was just taking his seat in the railway carriage.
‘Grigory Mihalitch ... Grigory....’ he heard a supplicating whisper behind him.
He started.... Could it be Irina? Yes; it was she. Wrapped in her maid’s shawl, a travelling hat on her dishevelled hair, she was standing on the platform, and gazing at him with worn and weary eyes.
‘Come back, come back, I have come for you,’ those eyes were saying. And what, what were they not promising? She did not move, she had not power to add a word; everything about her, even the disorder of her dress, everything seemed entreating forgiveness....
Litvinov was almost beaten, scarcely could he keep from rushing to her.... But the tide to which he had surrendered himself reasserted itself.... He jumped into the carriage, and turning round, he motioned Irina to a place beside him. She understood him. There was still time. One step, one movement, and two lives made one for ever would have been hurried away into the uncertain distance.... While she wavered, a loud whistle sounded and the train moved off.
Litvinov sank back, while Irina moved staggering to a seat, and fell on it, to the immense astonishment of a supernumerary diplomatic official who chanced to be lounging about the railway station. He was slightly acquainted-291- with Irina, and greatly admired her, and seeing that she lay as though overcome by faintness, he imagined that she had ‘une attaque de nerfs,’ and therefore deemed it his duty, the duty d’un galant chevalier, to go to her assistance. But his astonishment assumed far greater proportions when, at the first word addressed to her, she suddenly got up, repulsed his proffered arm, and hurrying out into the street, had in a few instants vanished in the milky vapour of fog, so characteristic of the climate of the Black Forest in the early days of autumn.