Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1226
At Baden, Grigory Litvinoff decides to enjoy a few days of vacation. The fashionable German watering place is full of Russians, and there, in a week or so, Litvinoff is to meet Tanya Shestoff, his fiancé, who is coming to Baden with her Aunt Kapitolina.
Litvinoff is poor, comparatively speaking. His father owns a large farm with forests, meadows, and a lake, but Russian farming is so unproductive that he can barely make ends meet. After his university days, Litvinoff decides to learn progressive farming, but, because Russia is so far behind in agriculture, he goes abroad to study. He goes to the Crimea, France, Switzerland, and England. Everywhere his keen mind absorbs the latest agricultural methods, and he is particularly impressed by the superiority of the few pieces of American machinery he sees. Full of ideas, his life is planned; he will make a model farm. First, however, he will marry Tanya.
Quite by chance, he runs into Bambaeff, a former acquaintance. Bambaeff is an ebullient person, filled with windy politics and intimate with the most advanced thinkers in Baden. When Bambaeff takes Litvinoff to meet Gubaryoff, the idol of the liberals, Litvinoff is repelled by the company he meets in Gubaryoff’s rooms. They all talk long and loud in their assertions that Russia produces nothing good, that all virtue resides in Europe proper, that the emancipation of the serfs is a foolish step. He meets Bindasoff, a choleric boor who borrows a hundred rubles from him; he never repays the debt, although Litvinoff later watches him win four hundred rubles with the money. Only one man in the gathering is quiet; he sits unnoticed in a corner.
After leaving Gubaryoff’s room, Litvinoff stops at a sidewalk café. The quiet man from Gubaryoff’s rooms appears and presents himself at Litvinoff’s table; he is Potugin, a former clerk in Moscow. They talk agreeably for a long time. Both men greatly dislike their compatriots who are so sure that nothing good comes out of Russia, and they both agree that by hard work Russia can advance. At last, as Potugin rises to go, he excuses himself by saying that he has a girl with him. Seeing Litvinoff’s look of polite blankness, he explains that he is looking after a little child who has no parents.
After a short walk, Litvinoff returns to his hotel. He has a letter from Tanya to read; as he reads it, he was bothered by a heavy sweet smell. Looking around, he sees a bunch of fresh heliotrope in a glass. Here is a mystery. The servant says that a lady gave him money to get into the room. She must have left the flowers. Suddenly, he remembers Irina.
Ten years before, Litvinoff was a student in Moscow. He was poor, and he frequently visited another poor family, the Osinins. The family was of the real nobility, but for generations the Osinins declined, until they existed only on a small pension the father received from some obscure sinecures. Litvinoff was attracted greatly to Irina, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the household, but for a long time Irina paid little heed to the poor student. One day, her haughtiness suddenly changed. Pliant and cheerful, she talked eagerly with Litvinoff of his ambitions. When he declared his love, Irina was pleased and grateful. With no formal understanding, Litvinoff became her accepted suitor.
By a trick of fate, Prince Osinin, her father, received an invitation to the court ball. Now that Irina was grown, he decided to accept, to show his daughter in fine society. Litvinoff urged Irina to go to the ball. She repeated many times that she was going only at Litvinoff’s insistence. On the night of the ball, Litvinoff brought her a bunch of heliotrope to wear. She took the flowers and kissed him passionately. The next day Irina had a headache and refused to see him. Two days after the ball Irina went to St. Petersburg with Count Reisenbach, a distant cousin of her mother. The explanation was brief and tragic. The count needed an ornament in his household. Grasping and ambitious as she was, Irina accepted and went to stay with her debauched cousin. Litvinoff put her out of his mind. He almost forgets the incident until the heliotrope appears mysteriously in his room.
Litvinoff wrestles with his conscience and decides not to see Irina again. He holds to his resolve until Potugin comes to him with a pressing invitation to visit the home of General Ratmiroff. At the party he meets Irina again, now the wife of General Ratmiroff, a vain, cruel aristocrat. Litvinoff is as much repelled by the empty smart set as he was by the empty liberals he met in Baden.
Irina will not let him ignore her. She begs her former suitor to love her again, and when she comes to his rooms he admits that his love never died.
Tanya and her Aunt Kapitolina appear. Even naïve Tanya sees at once that something happened to her fiancé; she is not wholly unprepared when he confesses his affair with Irina. Potugin tries his best to get Litvinoff to abandon Irina. He has good reason to do so. For love of Irina, he agreed to marry a friend of hers who was soon to bear an illegitimate child. Although the girl fell ill and the marriage never took place, Potugin is burdened with the care of the little girl. He acted because of his hopeless infatuation for Irina, and he warns Litvinoff that only evil consequences can come of leaving Tanya for the shallow aristocrat.
In his despair, Litvinoff makes a deal with Irina. He will not become her secret lover; she must go away with him and be his alone. He names the train on which he will leave. Irina is not at the station, and Litvinoff sadly takes his seat. Just then he sees Irina, dressed in her maid’s costume, rush to the platform. He motions her to come aboard; she understands, but she refuses by gesture and motions him to dismount. She stands in a hopeless attitude on the platform as the train pulls out of the station.
Litvinoff recovers almost wholly from his hurt. He is too quiet for his years, but he is fairly happy. He finds his father’s farm in bad shape, with insufficient income to keep up the house. His father is pathetically glad to see him and abandons the control of the estate to his son. That end accomplished, he dies content. For a long time there is no opportunity to introduce new methods; Litvinoff has all he can do to remain solvent.
After three years, he learns that Tanya lives on a farm a day’s journey away. Resolved to mend his life, he decides to go to her and to ask her forgiveness. He finds Tanya ready to forget as well as to forgive, and she is even embarrassed by his penitence. They are soon married. Irina continues to attract admirers in St. Petersburg; despite her thirty years, she retains the freshness of youth. Although many gallants are in attendance upon her, she never singles out a special admirer. The society ladies all agree that Irina is not generally liked; she has such an ironic turn of mind.
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