Smoke, by Ivan Turgenev

Chapter 15

LITVINOV found rather many guests at Irina’s . In a corner at a card-table were sitting three of the generals of the picnic: the stout one, the irascible one, and the condescending one. They were playing whist with dummy, and there is no word in the language of man to express the solemnity with which they dealt, took tricks, led clubs and led diamonds . . . there was no doubt about their being statesmen now! These gallant generals left to mere commoners, aux bourgeois, the little turns and phrases commonly used during play, and uttered only the most indispensable syllables; the stout general however permitted himself to jerk off between two deals: ”Ce satané as de pique!“ Among the visitors Litvinov recognized ladies who had been present at the picnic; but there were others there also whom he had not seen before. There was one so ancient that it seemed every instant as though she would fall to pieces: she shrugged her bare, gruesome, dingy gray shoulders, and, covering her mouth with her fan, leered languishingly with her absolutely death-like eyes upon Ratmirov; he paid her much attention; she was held in great honor in the highest society, as the last of the Maids of Honor of the Empress Catherine. At the window, dressed like a shepherdess, sat Countess S., “the Queen of the Wasps,” surrounded by young men. Among them the celebrated millionaire and beau Finikov was conspicuous for his supercilious deportment, his absolutely flat skull, and his expression of soulless brutality, worthy of a Khan of Buchania, or a Roman Heliogabalus. Another lady, also a countess, known by the pet name of Lise, was talking to a long-haired, fair, and pale spiritualistic medium. Beside them was standing a gentleman, also pale and long-haired, who kept laughing in a meaning way. This gentleman also believed in spiritualism, but added to that an interest in prophecy, and, on the basis of the Apocalypse and the Talmud, was in the habit of foretelling all kinds of marvelous events. Not a single one of these events had come to pass; but he was in no wise disturbed by that fact, and went on prophesying as before. At the piano, the musical genius had installed himself, the rough diamond, who had stirred Potugin to such indignation; he was striking chords with a careless hand, d’une main distraite, and kept staring vaguely about him. Irina was sitting on a sofa between Prince Kokó and Madame H., once a celebrated beauty and wit, who had long ago become a repulsive old crone, with the odor of sanctity and evaporated sinfulness about her. On catching sight of Litvinov, Irina blushed and got up, and when he went up to her, she pressed his hand warmly. She was wearing a dress of black crépon, relieved by a few inconspicuous gold ornaments; her shoulders were a dead white, while her face, pale, too, under the momentary flood of crimson overspreading it, was breathing with the triumph of beauty, and not of beauty alone; a hidden, almost ironical happiness was shining in her half-closed eyes, and quivering about her lips and nostrils. . . . Ratmirov approached Litvinov and after exchanging with him his customary civilities, unaccompanied however by his customary playfulness, he presented him to two or three ladies: the ancient ruin, the Queen of the Wasps, Countess Liza . . . they gave him a rather gracious reception. Litvinov did not belong to their set; but he was good-looking, extremely so, indeed, and the expressive features of his youthful face awakened their interest. Only he did not know how to fasten that interest upon himself; he was unaccustomed to society and was conscious of some embarrassment, added to which the stout general stared at him persistently. “Aha! lubberly civilian! free-thinker!” that fixed heavy stare seemed to be saying: “down on your knees to us; crawl to kiss our hands!” Irina came to Litvinov’s aid. She managed so adroitly that he got into a corner near the door, a little behind her. As she addressed him, she had each time to turn round to him, and every time he admired the exquisite curve of her splendid neck, he drank in the subtle fragrance of her hair. An expression of gratitude, deep and calm, never left her face; he could not help seeing that gratitude and nothing else was what those smiles, those glances expressed, and he, too, was all aglow with the same emotion, and he felt shame, and delight and dread at once . . . and at the same time she seemed continually as though she would ask, “Well? what do you think of them?” With special clearness Litvinov heard this unspoken question whenever any one of the party was guilty of some vulgar phrase or act, and that occurred more than once during the evening. Once she did not even conceal her feelings, and laughed aloud.

Countess Liza, a lady of superstitious bent, with an inclination for everything extraordinary, after discoursing to her heart’s content with the spiritualist upon Home, turning tables, self-playing concertinas, and so on, wound up by asking him whether there were animals which could be influenced by mesmerism.

“There is one such animal, any way,” Prince Kokó declared from some way off. “You know Melvanovsky, don’t you? They put him to sleep before me, and didn’t he snore, he, he!”

“You are very naughty, mon prince; I am speaking of real animals, je parle des bêtes.

Mais moi aussi, madame, je parle d’une bête . . . .“ “There are such,” put in the spiritualist; “for instance — crabs; they are very nervous, and are easily thrown into a cataleptic state.”

The countess was astounded. “What? Crabs! Really? Oh, that’s awfully interesting! Now, that I should like to see, M’sieu Luzhin,” she added to a young man with a face as stony as a new doll’s, and a stony collar (he prided himself on the fact that he had bedewed the aforesaid face and collar with the sprays of Niagara and the Nubian Nile, though he remembered nothing of all his travels, and cared for nothing but Russian puns . . .). “M’sieu Luzhin, if you would be so good, do bring us a crab quick.”

M’sieu Luzhin smirked. “Quick must it be, or quickly?” he queried.

The countess did not understand him. ”Mais oui, a crab,” she repeated, ”une écrevisse.

“Eh? what is it? a crab? a crab?” the Countess S. broke in harshly. The absence of M. Verdier irritated her; she could not imagine why Irina had not invited that most fascinating of Frenchmen. The ancient ruin, who had long since ceased understanding anything — moreover she was completely deaf — only shook her head.

Oui, oui, vous allez voir. M’sieu Luzhin, please . . . .”

The young traveler bowed, went out, and returned quickly. A waiter walked behind him, and grinning from ear to ear, carried in a dish, on which a large black crab was to be seen. ”Voici, madame,“ cried Luzhin; “now we can proceed to the operation on cancer. Ha, ha, ha!” (Russians are always the first to laugh at their own witticisms.)

“He, he, he!” Count Kokó did his duty condescendingly as a good patriot, and patron of all national products. (We beg the reader not to be amazed and indignant; who can say confidently for himself that sitting in the stalls of the Alexander Theater, and infected by its atmosphere, he has not applauded even worse puns?)

Merci, merci,“ said the countess. ”Allons, allons, Monsieur Fox, montrez nous ça.

The waiter put the dish down on a little round table. There was a slight movement among the guests; several heads were craned forward; only the generals at the card-table preserved the serene solemnity of their pose. The spiritualist ruffled up his hair, frowned, and, approaching the table, began waving his hands in the air; the crab stretched itself, backed, and raised its claws. The spiritualist repeated and quickened his movements; the crab stretched itself as before. ”Mais que doit-elle donc faire?“ inquired the countess.

Elle doâ rester immobile et se dresser sur sa quiou,“ replied Mr. Fox, with a strong American accent, and he brandished his fingers with convulsive energy over the dish; but the mesmerism had no effect, the crab continued to move. The spiritualist declared that he was not himself, and retired with an air of displeasure from the table. The countess began to console him, by assuring him that similar failures occurred sometimes even with Mr. Home. . . . Prince Kokó confirmed her words. The authority on the Apocalypse and the Talmud stealthily went up to the table, and making rapid but vigorous thrusts with his fingers in the direction of the crab, he too tried his luck, but without success; no symptom of catalepsy showed itself. Then the waiter was called, and told to take away the crab, which he accordingly did, grinning from ear to ear, as before; he could be heard exploding outside the door.

There was much laughter afterwards in the kitchen über diese Russen. The self-taught genius, who had gone on striking notes during the experiments with the crab, dwelling on melancholy chords, on the ground that there was no knowing what influence music might have — the self-taught genius played his invariable waltz, and, of course, was deemed worthy of the most flattering applause. Pricked on by rivalry, Count H., our incomparable dilettante (see Chapter I), gave a little song of his own composition, cribbed wholesale from Offenbach. Its playful refrain to the words: ”Quel oeuf? quel boeuf?“ set almost all the ladies’ heads swinging to right and to left; one went so far as to hum the tune lightly, and the irrepressible, inevitable word, ”Charmant! charmant!“ was fluttering on every one’s lips. Irina exchanged a glance with Litvinov, and again the same secret, ironical expression quivered about her lips. . . . But a little later it was still more strongly marked, there was even a shade of malice in it, when Prince Kokó, that representative and champion of the interests of the nobility, thought fit to propound his views to the spiritualist, and, of course, gave utterance before long to his famous phrase about the shock to the principle of property, accompanied naturally by an attack on democrats. The spiritualist’s American blood was stirred; he began to argue. The prince, as his habit was, at once fell to shouting at the top of his voice; instead of any kind of argument he repeated incessantly: ”C’est absurde! cela n’a pas le sens commun!“ The millionaire Finikov began saying insulting things, without much heed to whom they referred; the Talmudist’s piping notes and even the Countess S.‘s jarring voice could be heard. . . . In fact, almost the same incongruous uproar arose as at Gubaryov’s; the only difference was that here there was no beer nor tobacco-smoke, and every one was better dressed. Ratmirov tried to restore tranquillity (the generals manifested their displeasure, Boris’s exclamation could be heard, ”Encore cette satanée politique!“), but his efforts were not successful, and at that point, a high official of the stealthily inquisitorial type, who was present, and undertook to present le résumé en peu de mots, sustained a defeat: in fact he so hummed and hawed, so repeated himself, and was so obviously incapable of listening to or taking in the answers he received, and so unmistakably failed to perceive himself what precisely constituted la question that no other result could possibly have been anticipated. And then, too, Irina was slyly provoking the disputants and setting them against one another, constantly exchanging glances and slight signs with Litvinov as she did so.

But he was sitting like one spellbound, he was hearing nothing, and waiting for nothing but for those splendid eyes to sparkle again, that pale, tender, mischievous, exquisite face to flash upon him again . . . It ended by the ladies growing restive, and requesting that the dispute should cease. . . . Ratmirov entreated the dilettante to sing his song again, and the self-taught genius once more played his waltz . . . .

Litvinov stayed till after midnight, and went away later than all the rest. The conversation had in the course of the evening touched upon a number of subjects, studiously avoiding anything of the faintest interest; the generals, after finishing their solemn game, solemnly joined in it: the influence of these statesmen was at once apparent. The conversation turned upon notorieties of the Parisian demi-monde, with whose names and talents every one seemed intimately acquainted, on Sardou’s latest play, on a novel of About’s, on Patti in the Traviata. Some one proposed a game of “secretary,” au secrétaire; but it was not a success. The answers given were pointless, and often not free from grammatical mistakes; the stout general related that he had once in answer to the question: Qu’est-ce que l’amour? replied, Une colique remontée au coeur, and promptly went off into his wooden guffaw; the ancient ruin with a mighty effort struck him with her fan on the arm; a flake of plaster was shaken off her forehead by this rash action. The old crone was beginning a reference to the Slavonic principalities and the necessity of orthodox propaganda on the Danube, but, meeting with no response, she subsided with a hiss. In reality they talked more about Home than anything else; even the “Queen of the Wasps” described how hands had once crept about her, and how she had seen them, and put her own ring on one of them. It was certainly a triumph for Irina: even if Litvinov had paid more attention to what was being said around him, he still could not have gleaned one single sincere saying, one single clever. thought, one single new fact from all their disconnected and lifeless babble. Even in their cries and exclamations, there was no note of real feeling, in their slander no real heat. Only at rare intervals under the mask of assumed patriotic indignation, or of assumed contempt and indifference, the dread of possible losses could be heard in a plaintive whimper, and a few names, which will not be forgotten by posterity, were pronounced with gnashing of teeth. . . . And not a drop of living water under all this noise and wrangle! What stale, what unprofitable nonsense, what wretched trivialities were absorbing all these heads and hearts, and not for that one evening, not in society only, but at home too, every hour and every day, in all the depth and breadth of their existence! And what ignorance, when all is said! What lack of understanding of all on which human life is built, all by which life is made beautiful!

On parting from Litvinov, Irina again pressed his hand and whispered significantly, “Well? Are you pleased? Have you seen enough? Do you like it?” He made her no reply, but merely bowed low in silence.

Left alone with her husband, Irina was just going to her bedroom. . . . He stopped her.

Je vous ai beaucoup admirée ce soir, madame,“ he observed, smoking a cigarette, and leaning against the mantelpiece, ”vous vous êtes parfaitement moquée de nous tons.

Pas plus cette fois-ci que les autres,“ she answered indifferently.

“How do you mean me to understand you?” asked Ratmirov.

“As you like.”

“Hm. C’est clair.“ Ratmirov warily, like a cat, knocked off the ash of the cigarette with the tip of the long nail of his little finger. “Oh, by the way! This new friend of yours — what the dickens is his name? — Mr. Litvinov — doubtless enjoys the reputation of a very clever man.”

At the name of Litvinov, Irina turned quickly round.

“What do you mean to say?”

The general smiled.

“He keeps very quiet . . . one can see he’s afraid of compromising himself.”

Irina, too, smiled! it was a very different smile from her husband’s .

“Better keep quiet than talk . . . as some people talk.” ”Attrapé!“ answered Ratmirov with feigned submissiveness. “Joking apart, he has a very interesting face. Such a . . . concentrated expression . . . and his whole bearing. . . . Yes. . .” The general straightened his cravat, and bending his head stared at his own moustache. “He’s a republican, I imagine, of the same sort as your other friend, Mr. Potugin; that’s another of your clever fellows who are dumb.”

Irina’s brows were slowly raised above her wide open clear eyes, while her lips were tightly pressed together and faintly curved. “What’s your object in saying that, Valerian Vladimiritch,” she remarked, as though sympathetically. “You are wasting your arrows on the empty air. . We are not in Russia, and there is no one to hear you.”

Ratmirov was stung.

“That’s not merely my opinion, Irina Pavlovna,” he began in a voice suddenly guttural; “other people, too, notice that that gentleman has the air of a conspirator.”

“Really? who are these other people?”

“Well, Boris for instance —”

“What? Was it necessary for him too to express his opinion?”

Irina shrugged her shoulders as though shrinking from the cold, and slowly passed the tips of her fingers over them.

“Him . . . yes, him. Allow me to remark, Irina Pavlovna, that you seem angry; and you know if one is angry —”

“Am I angry? Oh, what for?”

“I don’t know; possibly you have been disagreeably affected by the observation I permitted myself to make in reference to ——”

Ratmirov stammered.

“In reference to?” Irina repeated interrogatively. “Ah, if you please, no irony, and make haste. I’m tired and sleepy.”

She took a candle from the table. “In reference to ——?”

“Well, in reference to this same Mr. Litvinov; since there’s no doubt now that you take a great interest in him.”

Irina lifted the hand in which she was holding the candlestick, till the flame was brought on a level with her husband’s face, and attentively, almost with curiosity, looking him straight in the face, she suddenly burst into laughter.

“What is it?” asked Ratmirov scowling.

Irina went on laughing.

“Well, what is it?” he repeated, and he stamped his foot.

He felt insulted, wounded, and at the same time against his will he was impressed by the beauty of this woman, standing so lightly and boldly before him . . she was tormenting him. He saw everything, all her charms — even the pink reflection of the delicate nails on her slender finger-tips, as they tightly clasped the dark bronze of the heavy candlestick — even that did not escape him . . . while the insult cut deeper and deeper into his heart. And still Irina laughed.

“What? You? You jealous?” she brought out at last, and turning her back on her husband she went out of the room. “He’s jealous!” he heard outside the door, and again came the sound of her laugh.

Ratmirov looked moodily after his wife; he could not even then help noticing the bewitching grace of her figure, her movements, and with a violent blow, crushing the cigarette on the marble slab of the mantelpiece, he flung it to a distance. His cheeks had suddenly turned white, a spasm passed over the lower half of his face, and with a dull animal stare his eyes strayed about the floor, as though in search of something. . . . Every semblance of refinement had vanished from his face. Such an expression it must have worn when he was flogging the White Russian peasants.

Litvinov had gone home to his rooms, and sitting down to the table he had buried his head in both hands, and remained a long while without stirring. He got up at last, opened a box, and taking out a pocket-book, he drew out of an inner pocket a photograph of Tatyana. Her face gazed out mournfully at him, looking ugly and old, as photographs usually do. Litvinov’s betrothed was a girl of Great Russian blood, a blonde, rather plump, and with the features of her face rather heavy, but with a wonderful expression of kindness and goodness in her intelligent, clear brown eyes, with a serene, white brow, on which it seemed as though a sunbeam always rested. For a long time Litvinov did not take his eyes from the photograph, then he pushed it gently away and again clutched his head in both hands. “All is at an end!” he whispered at last, “Irina! Irina!”

Only now, only at that instant, he realized that he was irrevocably, senselessly, in love with her, that he had loved her since the very day of that first meeting with her at the Old Castle, that he had never ceased to love her. And yet how astounded, how incredulous, how scornful, he would have been, had he been told so a few hours back!

“But Tanya, Tanya, my God! Tanya! Tanya!” he repeated in contrition; while Irina’s shape fairly rose before his eyes in her black almost funereal garb, with the radiant calm of victory on her marble white face.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01