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FIRST LOVE AND OTHER STORIES
by Ivan Turgenev
Published 2018 by Blackmore Dennett
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE REGION OF DEAD CALM
IT IS ENOUGH
THE guests had long since departed. The clock struck half-past twelve. There remained in the room only the host, Sergyéi Nikoláevitch, and Vladímir Petróvitch.
The host rang and ordered the remains of the supper to be removed.—“So then, the matter is settled,”—he said, ensconcing himself more deeply in his arm-chair, and lighting a cigar:—“each of us is to narrate the history of his first love. ’Tis your turn, Sergyéi Nikoláevitch.”
Sergyéi Nikoláevitch, a rather corpulent man, with a plump, fair-skinned face, first looked at the host, then raised his eyes to the ceiling.—“I had no first love,”—he began at last:—“I began straight off with the second.”
“How was that?”
“Very simply. I was eighteen years of age when, for the first time, I dangled after a very charming young lady; but I courted her as though it were no new thing to me: exactly as I courted others afterward. To tell the truth, I fell in love, for the first and last time, at the age of six, with my nurse;—but that is a very long time ago. The details of our relations have been erased from mymemory; but even if I remembered them, who would be interested in them?”
“Then what are we to do?”—began the host.—“There was nothing very startling about my first love either; I never fell in love with any one before Anna Ivánovna, now my wife; and everything ran as though on oil with us; our fathers made up the match, we very promptly fell in love with each other, and entered the bonds of matrimony without delay. My story can be told in two words. I must confess, gentlemen, that in raising the question of first love, I set my hopes on you, I will not say old, but yet no longer young bachelors. Will not you divert us with something, Vladímir Petróvitch?”
“My first love belongs, as a matter of fact, not altogether to the ordinary category,”—replied, with a slight hesitation, Vladímir Petróvitch, a man of forty, whose black hair was sprinkled with grey.
“Ah!”—said the host and Sergyéi Nikoláevitch in one breath.—“So much the better.... Tell us.”
“As you like ... or no: I will not narrate; I am no great hand at telling a story; it turns out dry and short, or long-drawn-out and artificial. But if you will permit me, I will write down all that I remember in a note-book, and will read it aloud to you.”
At first the friends would not consent, but Vladímir Petróvitch insisted on having his own way. A fortnight later they came together again, and Vladímir Sergyéitch kept his promise.
This is what his note-book contained.
I was sixteen years old at the time. The affair took place in the summer of 1833.
I was living in Moscow, in my parents’ house. They had hired a villa near the Kalúga barrier, opposite the Neskútchny Park.—I was preparing for the university, but was working very little and was not in a hurry.
No one restricted my freedom. I had done whatever I pleased ever since I had parted with my last French governor, who was utterly unable to reconcile himself to the thought that he had fallen “like a bomb” (comme une bombe) into Russia, and with a stubborn expression on his face, wallowed in bed for whole days at a time. My father treated me in an indifferently-affectionate way; my mother paid hardly any attention to me, although she had no children except me: other cares engrossed her. My father, still a young man and very handsome, had married her from calculation; she was ten years older than he. My mother led a melancholy life: she was incessantly in a state of agitation, jealousy, and wrath—but not in the presence of my father; she was very much afraid of him, and he maintained a stern, cold, and distant manner.... I have never seen a man more exquisitely calm, self-confident, and self-controlled.
I shall never forget the first weeks I spent at the villa. The weather was magnificent; we had left town the ninth of May, on St. Nicholas’s day. I rambled,—sometimes in the garden of our villa, sometimes in Neskútchny Park, sometimes beyond the city barriers; I took with me some book or other,—a course of Kaidánoff,—but rarely opened it, and chiefly recited aloud poems, of which I knew a great many by heart. The blood was fermenting in me, and my heart was aching—so sweetly and absurdly; I was always waiting for something, shrinking at something, and wondering at everything, and was all ready for anything at a moment’s notice. My fancy was beginning to play, and hovered swiftly ever around the selfsame image, as martins hover round a belfry at sunset. But even athwart my tears and athwart the melancholy, inspired now by a melodious verse, now by the beauty of the evening, there peered forth, like grass in springtime, the joyous sensation of young, bubbling life.
I had a saddle-horse; I was in the habit of saddling it myself, and when I rode off alone as far as possible, in some direction, launching out at a gallop and fancying myself a knight at a tourney—how blithely the wind whistled in my ears!—Or, turning my face skyward, I welcomed its beaming light and azure into my open soul.
I remember, at that time, the image of woman, the phantom of woman’s love, almost never entered my mind in clearly-defined outlines; but in everything I thought, in everything I felt, there lay hidden the half-conscious, shamefaced presentiment of something new, inexpressibly sweet, feminine....
This presentiment, this expectation permeated my whole being; I breathed it, it coursed through my veins in every drop of blood ... it was fated to be speedily realised.
Our villa consisted of a wooden manor-house with columns, and two tiny outlying wings; in the wing to the left a tiny factory of cheap wall-papers was installed.... More than once I went thither to watch how half a score of gaunt, dishevelled young fellows in dirty smocks and with tipsy faces were incessantly galloping about at the wooden levers which jammed down the square blocks of the press, and in that manner, by the weight of their puny bodies, printed the motley-hued patterns of the wall-papers. The wing on the right stood empty and was for rent. One day—three weeks after the ninth of May—the shutters on the windows of this wing were opened, and women’s faces made their appearance in them; some family or other had moved into it. I remember how, that same day at dinner, my mother inquired of the butler who our new neighbours were, and on hearing the name of Princess Zasyékin, said at first, not without some respect:—“Ah! a Princess” ... and then she added:—“She must be some poor person!”
“They came in three hired carriages, ma’am,”—remarked the butler, as he respectfully presented a dish. “They have no carriage of their own, ma’am, and their furniture is of the very plainest sort.”
“Yes,”—returned my mother,—“and nevertheless, it is better so.”
My father shot a cold glance at her; she subsided into silence.
As a matter of fact, Princess Zasyékin could not be a wealthy woman: the wing she had hired was so old and tiny and low-roofed that people in the least well-to-do would not have been willing to inhabit it.—However, I let this go in at one ear and out at the other. The princely title had little effect on me: I had recently been reading Schiller’s “The Brigands.”
I had a habit of prowling about our garden every evening, gun in hand, and standing guard against the crows.—I had long cherished a hatred for those wary, rapacious and crafty birds. On the day of which I have been speaking, I went into the garden as usual, and, after having fruitlessly made the round of all the alleys (the crows recognised me from afar, and merely cawed spasmodically at a distance), I accidentally approached the low fence which separated our territory from the narrow strip of garden extending behind the right-hand wing and appertaining to it. I was walking along with drooping head. Suddenly I heard voices: I glanced over the fence—and was petrified.... A strange spectacle presented itself to me.
A few paces distant from me, on a grass-plot between green raspberry-bushes, stood a tall, graceful young girl, in a striped, pink frock and with a white kerchief on her head; around her pressed four young men, and she was tapping them in turn on the brow with those small grey flowers, the name of which I do not know, but which are familiar to children; these little flowers form tiny sacs, and burst with a pop when they are struck against anything hard. The young men offered their foreheads to her so willingly, and in the girl’s movements (I saw her form in profile) there was something so bewitching, caressing, mocking, and charming, that I almost cried aloud in wonder and pleasure; and I believe I would have given everything in the world if those lovely little fingers had only consented to tap me on the brow. My gun slid down on the grass, I forgot everything, I devoured with my eyes that slender waist, and the neck and the beautiful arms, and the slightly ruffled fair hair, the intelligent eyes and those lashes, and the delicate cheek beneath them....
“Young man, hey there, young man!”—suddenly spoke up a voice near me:—“Is it permissible to stare like that at strange young ladies?”
I trembled all over, I was stupefied.... Beside me, on the other side of the fence, stood a man with closely-clipped black hair, gazing ironically at me. At that same moment, the young girl turned toward me.... I beheld huge grey eyes in a mobile, animated face—and this whole face suddenly began to quiver, and to laugh, and the white teeth gleamed from it, the brows elevated themselves in an amusing way.... I flushed, picked up my gun from the ground, and, pursued by ringing but not malicious laughter, I ran to my own room, flung myself on the bed, and covered my face with my hands. My heart was fairly leaping within me; I felt very much ashamed and very merry: I experienced an unprecedented emotion.
After I had rested awhile, I brushed my hair, made myself neat and went down-stairs to tea. The image of the young girl floated in front of me; my heart had ceased to leap, but ached in an agreeable sort of way.
“What ails thee?”—my father suddenly asked me:—“hast thou killed a crow?”
I was on the point of telling him all, but refrained and only smiled to myself. As I was preparing for bed, I whirled round thrice on one foot, I know not why, pomaded my hair, got into bed and slept all night like a dead man. Toward morning I awoke for a moment, raised my head, cast a glance of rapture around me—and fell asleep again.
“How am I to get acquainted with them?” was my first thought, as soon as I awoke in the morning. I went out into the garden before tea, but did not approach too close to the fence, and saw no one. After tea I walked several times up and down the street in front of the villa, and cast a distant glance at the windows.... I thought I descried her face behind the curtains, and retreated with all possible despatch. “But I must get acquainted,”—I thought, as I walked with irregular strides up and down the sandy stretch which extends in front of the Neskútchny Park ... “but how? that is the question.” I recalled the most trifling incidents of the meeting on the previous evening; for some reason, her manner of laughing at me presented itself to me with particular clearness.... But while I was fretting thus and constructing various plans, Fate was already providing for me.
During my absence, my mother had received a letter from her new neighbour on grey paper sealed with brown wax, such as is used only on postal notices, and on the corks of cheap wine. In this letter, written in illiterate language, and with a slovenly chirography, the Princess requested my mother to grant her her protection: my mother, according to the Princess’s words, was well acquainted with the prominent people on whom the fortune of herself and her children depended, as she had some extremely important law-suits: “I apeal tyou,”—she wrote,—“as a knoble woman to a knoble woman, and moarover, it is agriable to me to makeus of this oportunity.” In conclusion, she asked permission of my mother to call upon her. I found my mother in an unpleasant frame of mind: my father was not at home, and she had no one with whom to take counsel. It was impossible not to reply to a “knoble woman,” and to a Princess into the bargain; but how to reply perplexed my mother. It seemed to her ill-judged to write a note in French, and my mother was not strong in Russian orthography herself—and was aware of the fact—and did not wish to compromise herself. She was delighted at my arrival, and immediately ordered me to go to the Princess and explain to her verbally that my mother was always ready, to the extent of her ability, to be of service to Her Radiance, and begged that she would call upon her about one o’clock.
This unexpectedly swift fulfilment of my secret wishes both delighted and frightened me; but I did not betray the emotion which held possession of me, and preliminarily betook myself to my room for the purpose of donning a new neckcloth and coat; at home I went about in a round-jacket and turn-over collars, although I detested them greatly.
In the cramped and dirty anteroom of the wing, which I entered with an involuntary trembling of my whole body, I was received by a grey-haired old serving-man with a face the hue of dark copper, pig-like, surly little eyes, and such deep wrinkles on his forehead as I had never seen before in my life. He was carrying on a platter the gnawed spinal bone of a herring, and, pushing to with his foot the door which led into the adjoining room, he said abruptly:—“What do you want?”
“Is Princess Zasyékin at home?”—I inquired.
“Vonifáty!”—screamed a quavering female voice on the other side of the door.
The servant silently turned his back on me, thereby displaying the badly-worn rear of his livery with its solitary, rusted, armouried button, and went away, leaving the platter on the floor.
“Hast thou been to the police-station?”—went on that same feminine voice. The servant muttered something in reply.—“Hey?... Some one has come?”—was the next thing audible.... “The young gentleman from next door?—Well, ask him in.”
“Please come into the drawing-room, sir,”—said the servant, making his appearance again before me, and picking up the platter from the floor. I adjusted my attire and entered the “drawing-room.”
I found myself in a tiny and not altogether clean room, with shabby furniture which seemed to have been hastily set in place. At the window, in an easy-chair with a broken arm, sat a woman of fifty, with uncovered hair and plain-featured, clad in an old green gown, and with a variegated worsted kerchief round her neck. Her small black eyes fairly bored into me.
I went up to her and made my bow.
“I have the honour of speaking to Princess Zasyékin?”
“I am Princess Zasyékin: and you are the son of Mr. B—?”
“Yes, madam. I have come to you with a message from my mother.”
“Pray be seated. Vonifáty! where are my keys? Hast thou seen them?”
I communicated to Madame Zasyékin my mother’s answer to her note. She listened to me, tapping the window-pane with her thick, red fingers, and when I had finished she riveted her eyes on me once more.
“Very good; I shall certainly go,”—said she at last.—“But how young you are still! How old are you, allow me to ask?”
“Sixteen,”—I replied with involuntary hesitation.
The Princess pulled out of her pocket some dirty, written documents, raised them up to her very nose and began to sort them over.
“‘Tis a good age,”—she suddenly articulated, turning and fidgeting in her chair.—“And please do not stand on ceremony. We are plain folks.”
“Too plain,”—I thought, with involuntary disgust taking in with a glance the whole of her homely figure.
At that moment, the other door of the drawing-room was swiftly thrown wide open, and on the threshold appeared the young girl whom I had seen in the garden the evening before. She raised her hand and a smile flitted across her face.
“And here is my daughter,”—said the Princess, pointing at her with her elbow.—“Zínotchka, the son of our neighbour, Mr. B—. What is your name, permit me to inquire?”
“Vladímir,”—I replied, rising and lisping with agitation.
“And your patronymic?”
“Yes! I once had an acquaintance, a chief of police, whose name was Vladímir Petróvitch also. Vonifáty! don’t hunt for the keys; the keys are in my pocket.”
The young girl continued to gaze at me with the same smile as before, slightly puckering up her eyes and bending her head a little on one side.
“I have already seen M’sieu Voldemar,”—she began. (The silvery tone of her voice coursed through me like a sweet chill.)—“Will you permit me to call you so?”
“Pray do, madam,”—I lisped.
“Where was that?”—asked the Princess.
The young Princess did not answer her mother.
“Are you busy now?”—she said, without taking her eyes off me.
“Not in the least, madam.”
“Then will you help me to wind some wool? Come hither, to me.”
She nodded her head at me and left the drawing-room. I followed her.
In the room which we entered the furniture was a little better and was arranged with great taste.—But at that moment I was almost unable to notice anything; I moved as though in a dream and felt a sort of intense sensation of well-being verging on stupidity throughout my frame.
The young Princess sat down, produced a knot of red wool, and pointing me to a chair opposite her, she carefully unbound the skein and placed it on my hands. She did all this in silence, with a sort of diverting deliberation, and with the same brilliant and crafty smile on her slightly parted lips. She began to wind the wool upon a card doubled together, and suddenly illumined me with such a clear, swift glance, that I involuntarily dropped my eyes. When her eyes, which were generally half closed, opened to their full extent her face underwent a complete change; it was as though light had inundated it.
“What did you think of me yesterday, M’sieu Voldemar?”—she asked, after a brief pause.—“You certainly must have condemned me?”
“I ... Princess ... I thought nothing ... how can I....” I replied, in confusion.
“Listen,”—she returned.—“You do not know me yet; I want people always to speak the truth to me. You are sixteen, I heard, and I am twenty-one; you see that I am a great deal older than you, and therefore you must always speak the truth to me ... and obey me,”—she added.—“Look at me; why don’t you look at me?”
I became still more confused; but I raised my eyes to hers, nevertheless. She smiled, only not in her former manner, but with a different, an approving smile.—“Look at me,”—she said, caressingly lowering her voice:—“I don’t like that.... Your face pleases me; I foresee that we shall be friends. And do you like me?”—she added slyly.
“Princess....” I was beginning....
“In the first place, call me Zinaída Alexándrovna; and in the second place,—what sort of a habit is it for children”—(she corrected herself)—“for young men—not to say straight out what they feel? You do like me, don’t you?”
Although it was very pleasant to me to have her talk so frankly to me, still I was somewhat nettled. I wanted to show her that she was not dealing with a small boy, and, assuming as easy and serious a mien as I could, I said:—“Of course I like you very much, Zinaída Alexándrovna; I have no desire to conceal the fact.”
She shook her head, pausing at intervals.—“Have you a governor?”—she suddenly inquired.
“No, I have not had a governor this long time past.”
I lied: a month had not yet elapsed since I had parted with my Frenchman.
“Oh, yes, I see: you are quite grown up.”
She slapped me lightly on the fingers.—“Hold your hands straight!”—And she busied herself diligently with winding her ball.
I took advantage of the fact that she did not raise her eyes, and set to scrutinising her, first by stealth, then more and more boldly. Her face seemed to me even more charming than on the day before: everything about it was so delicate, intelligent and lovely. She was sitting with her back to the window, which was hung with a white shade; a ray of sunlight making its way through that shade inundated with a flood of light her fluffy golden hair, her innocent neck, sloping shoulders, and calm, tender bosom.—I gazed at her—and how near and dear she became to me! It seemed to me both that I had known her for a long time and that I had known nothing and had not lived before she came.... She wore a rather dark, already shabby gown, with an apron; I believe I would willingly have caressed every fold of that gown and of that apron. The tips of her shoes peeped out from under her gown; I would have bowed down to those little boots.... “And here I sit, in front of her,”—I thought.—“I have become acquainted with her ... what happiness, my God!” I came near bouncing out of my chair with rapture, but I merely dangled my feet to and fro a little, like a child who is enjoying dainties.
I felt as much at my ease as a fish does in water, and I would have liked never to leave that room again as long as I lived.
Her eyelids slowly rose, and again her brilliant eyes beamed caressingly before me, and again she laughed.
“How you stare at me!”—she said slowly, shaking her finger at me.
I flushed scarlet.... “She understands all, she sees all,”—flashed through my head. “And how could she fail to see and understand all?”
Suddenly there was a clattering in the next room, and a sword clanked.
“Zína!”—screamed the old Princess from the drawing-room.—“Byelovzóroff has brought thee a kitten.”
“A kitten!”—cried Zinaída, and springing headlong from her chair, she flung the ball on my knees and ran out.
I also rose, and, laying the skein of wool on the window-sill, went into the drawing-room, and stopped short in amazement. In the centre of the room lay a kitten with outstretched paws; Zinaída was kneeling in front of it, and carefully raising its snout. By the side of the young Princess, taking up nearly the entire wall-space between the windows, was visible a fair-complexioned, curly-haired young man, a hussar, with a rosy face and protruding eyes.
“How ridiculous!”—Zinaída kept repeating:—“and its eyes are not grey, but green, and what big ears it has! Thank you, Viktór Egóritch! you are very kind.”
The hussar, in whom I recognised one of the young men whom I had seen on the preceding evening, smiled and bowed, clicking his spurs and clanking the links of his sword as he did so.
“You were pleased to say yesterday that you wished to possess a striped kitten with large ears ... so I have got it, madam. Your word is my law.”—And again he bowed.
The kitten mewed faintly, and began to sniff at the floor.
“He is hungry!”—cried Zinaída.—“Vonifáty! Sónya! bring some milk.”
The chambermaid, in an old yellow gown and with a faded kerchief on her head, entered with a saucer of milk in her hand, and placed it in front of the kitten. The kitten quivered, blinked, and began to lap.
“What a rosy tongue it has,”—remarked Zinaída, bending her head down almost to the floor, and looking sideways at it, under its very nose.
The kitten drank its fill, and began to purr, affectedly contracting and relaxing its paws. Zinaída rose to her feet, and turning to the maid, said indifferently:—“Take it away.”
“Your hand—in return for the kitten,”—said the hussar, displaying his teeth, and bending over the whole of his huge body, tightly confined in a new uniform.
“Both hands,”—replied Zinaída, offering him her hands. While he was kissing them, she gazed at me over his shoulder.
I stood motionless on one spot, and did not know whether to laugh or to say something, or to hold my peace. Suddenly, through the open door of the anteroom, the figure of our footman, Feódor, caught my eye. He was making signs to me. I mechanically went out to him.
“What dost thou want?”—I asked.
“Your mamma has sent for you,”—he said in a whisper.—“She is angry because you do not return with an answer.”
“Why, have I been here long?”
“More than an hour.”
“More than an hour!”—I repeated involuntarily, and returning to the drawing-room, I began to bow and scrape my foot.
“Where are you going?”—the young Princess asked me, with a glance at the hussar.
“I must go home, madam. So I am to say,”—I added, addressing the old woman,—“that you will call upon us at two o’clock.”
“Say that, my dear fellow.”
The old Princess hurriedly drew out her snuffbox, and took a pinch so noisily that I fairly jumped.—“Say that,”—she repeated, tearfully blinking and grunting.
I bowed once more, turned and left the room with the same sensation of awkwardness in my back which a very young man experiences when he knows that people are staring after him.
“Look here, M’sieu Voldemar, you must drop in to see us,”—called Zinaída, and again burst out laughing.
“What makes her laugh all the time?” I thought, as I wended my way home accompanied by Feódor, who said nothing to me, but moved along disapprovingly behind me. My mother reproved me, and inquired, with surprise, “What could I have been doing so long at the Princess’s?” I made her no answer, and went off to my own room. I had suddenly grown very melancholy.... I tried not to weep.... I was jealous of the hussar.
The Princess, according to her promise, called on my mother, and did not please her. I was not present at their meeting, but at table my mother narrated to my father that that Princess Zasyékin seemed to her a femme très vulgaire; that she had bored her immensely with her requests that she would intervene on her behalf with Prince Sergyéi; that she was always having such law-suits and affairs,—de vilaines affaires d’argent,—and that she must be a great rogue. But my mother added that she had invited her with her daughter to dine on the following day (on hearing the words “with her daughter,” I dropped my nose into my plate),—because, notwithstanding, she was a neighbour, and with a name. Thereupon my father informed my mother that he now recalled who the lady was: that in his youth he had known the late Prince Zasyékin, a capitally-educated but flighty and captious man; that in society he was called “le Parisien,” because of his long residence in Paris; that he had been very wealthy, but had gambled away all his property—and, no one knew why, though probably it had been for the sake of the money,—“although he might have made a better choice,”—added my father, with a cold smile,—he had married the daughter of some clerk in a chancellery, and after his marriage had gone into speculation, and ruined himself definitively.
“‘Tis a wonder she did not try to borrow money,”—remarked my mother.
“She is very likely to do it,”—said my father, calmly.—“Does she speak French?”
“M-m-m. However, that makes no difference. I think thou saidst that thou hadst invited her daughter; some one assured me that she is a very charming and well-educated girl.”
“Ah! Then she does not take after her mother.”
“Nor after her father,”—returned my father.—“He was also well educated, but stupid.”
My mother sighed, and became thoughtful. My father relapsed into silence. I felt very awkward during the course of that conversation.
After dinner I betook myself to the garden, but without my gun. I had pledged my word to myself that I would not go near the “Zasyékin garden”; but an irresistible force drew me thither, and not in vain. I had no sooner approached the fence than I caught sight of Zinaída. This time she was alone. She was holding a small book in her hands and strolling slowly along the path. She did not notice me. I came near letting her slip past; but suddenly caught myself up and coughed.
She turned round but did not pause, put aside with one hand the broad blue ribbon of her round straw hat, looked at me, smiled quietly, and again riveted her eyes on her book.
I pulled off my cap, and after fidgeting about a while on one spot, I went away with a heavy heart. “Que suis-je pour elle?”—I thought (God knows why) in French.
Familiar footsteps resounded behind me; I glanced round and beheld my father advancing toward me with swift, rapid strides.
“Is that the young Princess?”—he asked me.
“Dost thou know her?”
“I saw her this morning at the Princess her mother’s.”
My father halted and, wheeling abruptly round on his heels, retraced his steps. As he came on a level with Zinaída he bowed courteously to her. She bowed to him in return, not without some surprise on her face, and lowered her book. I saw that she followed him with her eyes. My father always dressed very elegantly, originally and simply; but his figure had never seemed to me more graceful, never had his grey hat sat more handsomely on his curls, which were barely beginning to grow thin.
I was on the point of directing my course toward Zinaída, but she did not even look at me, but raised her book once more and walked away.
I spent the whole of that evening and the following day in a sort of gloomy stupor. I remember that I made an effort to work, and took up Kaidánoff; but in vain did the large-printed lines and pages of the famous text-book flit before my eyes. Ten times in succession I read the words: “Julius Cæsar was distinguished for military daring,” without understanding a word, and I flung aside my book. Before dinner I pomaded my hair again, and again donned my frock-coat and neckerchief.
“What’s that for?”—inquired my mother.—“Thou art not a student yet, and God knows whether thou wilt pass thy examination. And thy round-jacket was made not very long ago. Thou must not discard it!”
“There are to be guests,”—I whispered, almost in despair.
“What nonsense! What sort of guests are they?”
I was compelled to submit. I exchanged my coat for my round-jacket, but did not remove my neckerchief. The Princess and her daughter made their appearance half an hour before dinner; the old woman had thrown a yellow shawl over her green gown, with which I was familiar, and had donned an old-fashioned mob-cap with ribbons of a fiery hue. She immediately began to talk about her notes of hand, to sigh and to bewail her poverty, and to “importune,” but did not stand in the least upon ceremony; and she took snuff noisily and fidgeted and wriggled in her chair as before. It never seemed to enter her head that she was a Princess. On the other hand, Zinaída bore herself very stiffly, almost haughtily, like a real young Princess. Cold impassivity and dignity had made their appearance on her countenance, and I did not recognise her,—did not recognise her looks or her smile, although in this new aspect she seemed to me very beautiful. She wore a thin barège gown with pale-blue figures; her hair fell in long curls along her cheeks, in the English fashion: this coiffure suited the cold expression of her face.
My father sat beside her during dinner, and with the exquisite and imperturbable courtesy which was characteristic of him, showed attention to his neighbour. He glanced at her from time to time, and she glanced at him now and then, but in such a strange, almost hostile, manner. Their conversation proceeded in French;—I remember that I was surprised at the purity of Zinaída’s accent. The old Princess, as before, did not restrain herself in the slightest degree during dinner, but ate a great deal and praised the food. My mother evidently found her wearisome, and answered her with a sort of sad indifference; my father contracted his brows in a slight frown from time to time. My mother did not like Zinaída either.
“She’s a haughty young sprig,”—she said the next day.—“And when one comes to think of it, what is there for her to be proud of?—avec sa mine de grisette!”
“Evidently, thou hast not seen any grisettes,”—my father remarked to her.
“Of course I haven’t, God be thanked!... Only, how art thou capable of judging of them?”
Zinaída paid absolutely no attention whatever to me. Soon after dinner the old Princess began to take her leave.
“I shall rely upon your protection, Márya Nikoláevna and Piótr Vasílitch,”—she said, in a sing-song tone, to my father and mother.—“What is to be done! I have seen prosperous days, but they are gone. Here am I a Radiance,”—she added, with an unpleasant laugh,—“but what’s the good of an honour when you’ve nothing to eat?”—My father bowed respectfully to her and escorted her to the door of the anteroom. I was standing there in my round-jacket, and staring at the floor, as though condemned to death. Zinaída’s behaviour toward me had definitively annihilated me. What, then, was my amazement when, as she passed me, she whispered to me hastily, and with her former affectionate expression in her eyes:—“Come to us at eight o’clock, do you hear? without fail....” I merely threw my hands apart in amazement;—but she was already retreating, having thrown a white scarf over her head.
Precisely at eight o’clock I entered the tiny wing inhabited by the Princess, clad in my coat, and with my hair brushed up into a crest on top of my head. The old servant glared surlily at me, and rose reluctantly from his bench. Merry voices resounded in the drawing-room. I opened the door and retreated a pace in astonishment. In the middle of the room, on a chair, stood the young Princess, holding a man’s hat in front of her; around the chair thronged five men. They were trying to dip their hands into the hat, but she kept raising it on high and shaking it violently. On catching sight of me she exclaimed:—
“Stay, stay! Here’s a new guest; he must be given a ticket,”—and springing lightly from the chair, she seized me by the lapel of my coat.—“Come along,”—said she;—“why do you stand there? Messieurs, allow me to make you acquainted: this is Monsieur Voldemar, the son of our neighbour. And this,”—she added, turning to me, and pointing to the visitors in turn,—“is Count Malévsky, Doctor Lúshin, the poet Maidánoff, retired Captain Nirmátzky, and Byelovzóroff the hussar, whom you have already seen. I beg that you will love and favour each other.”
I was so confused that I did not even bow to any one; in Doctor Lúshin I recognised that same swarthy gentleman who had so ruthlessly put me to shame in the garden; the others were strangers to me.
“Count!”—pursued Zinaída,—“write a ticket for M’sieu Voldemar.”
“That is unjust,”—returned the Count, with a slight accent,—a very handsome and foppishly-attired man, with a dark complexion, expressive brown eyes, a thin, white little nose, and a slender moustache over his tiny mouth.—“He has not been playing at forfeits with us.”
“‘Tis unjust,”—repeated Byelovzóroff and the gentleman who had been alluded to as the retired Captain,—a man of forty, horribly pockmarked, curly-haired as a negro, round-shouldered, bow-legged, and dressed in a military coat without epaulets, worn open on the breast.
“Write a ticket, I tell you,”—repeated the Princess.—“What sort of a rebellion is this? M’sieu Voldemar is with us for the first time, and to-day no law applies to him. No grumbling—write; I will have it so.”
The Count shrugged his shoulders, but submissively bowing his head, he took a pen in his white, ring-decked hand, tore off a scrap of paper and began to write on it.
“Permit me at least to explain to M’sieu Voldemar what it is all about,”—began Lúshin, in a bantering tone;—“otherwise he will be utterly at a loss. You see, young man, we are playing at forfeits; the Princess must pay a fine, and the one who draws out the lucky ticket must kiss her hand. Do you understand what I have told you?”
I merely glanced at him and continued to stand as though in a fog, while the Princess again sprang upon the chair and again began to shake the hat. All reached up to her—I among the rest.
“Maidánoff,”—said the Princess to the tall young man with a gaunt face, tiny mole-like eyes and extremely long, black hair,—“you, as a poet, ought to be magnanimous and surrender your ticket to M’sieu Voldemar, so that he may have two chances instead of one.”
But Maidánoff shook his head in refusal and tossed his hair. I put in my hand into the hat after all the rest, drew out and unfolded a ticket.... O Lord! what were my sensations when I beheld on it, “Kiss!”
“Kiss!”—I cried involuntarily.
“Bravo! He has won,”—chimed in the Princess.—“How delighted I am!”—She descended from the chair, and gazed into my eyes so clearly and sweetly that my heart fairly laughed with joy.—“And are you glad?”—she asked me.
“I?” ... I stammered.
“Sell me your ticket,”—suddenly blurted out Byelovzóroff, right in my ear.—“I’ll give you one hundred rubles for it.”
I replied to the hussar by such a wrathful look that Zinaída clapped her hands, and Lúshin cried:—“That’s a gallant fellow!”
“But,”—he went on,—“in my capacity of master of ceremonies, I am bound to see that all the regulations are carried out. M’sieu Voldemar, get down on one knee. That is our rule.”
Zinaída stood before me with her head bent a little to one side, as though the better to scrutinise me, and offered me her hand with dignity. Things grew dim before my eyes; I tried to get down on one knee, plumped down on both knees, and applied my lips to Zinaída’s fingers in so awkward a manner that I scratched the tip of my nose slightly on her nails.
“Good!”—shouted Lúshin, and helped me to rise.
The game of forfeits continued. Zinaída placed me beside her. What penalties they did invent! Among other things, she had to impersonate a “statue”—and she selected as a pedestal the monstrously homely Nirmátzky, ordering him to lie flat on the floor, and to tuck his face into his breast. The laughter did not cease for a single moment. All this noise and uproar, this unceremonious, almost tumultuous merriment, these unprecedented relations with strangers, fairly flew to my head; for I was a boy who had been reared soberly, and in solitude, and had grown up in a stately home of gentry. I became simply intoxicated, as though with wine. I began to shout with laughter and chatter more loudly than the rest, so that even the old Princess, who was sitting in the adjoining room with some sort of pettifogger from the Íversky Gate who had been summoned for a conference, came out to take a look at me. But I felt so happy that, as the saying is, I didn’t care a farthing for anybody’s ridicule, or anybody’s oblique glances.
Zinaída continued to display a preference for me and never let me leave her side. In one forfeit I was made to sit by her, covered up with one and the same silk kerchief: I was bound to tell her my secret. I remember how our two heads found themselves suddenly in choking, semi-transparent, fragrant gloom; how near and softly her eyes sparkled in that gloom, and how hotly her parted lips breathed; and her teeth were visible, and the tips of her hair tickled and burned me. I maintained silence. She smiled mysteriously and slyly, and at last whispered to me: “Well, what is it?” But I merely flushed and laughed, and turned away, and could hardly draw my breath. We got tired of forfeits, and began to play “string.” Good heavens! what rapture I felt when, forgetting myself with gaping, I received from her a strong, sharp rap on my fingers; and how afterward I tried to pretend that I was yawning with inattention, but she mocked at me and did not touch my hands, which were awaiting the blow!
But what a lot of other pranks we played that same evening! We played on the piano, and sang, and danced, and represented a gipsy camp. We dressed Nirmátzky up like a bear, and fed him with water and salt. Count Malévsky showed us several card tricks, and ended by stacking the cards and dealing himself all the trumps at whist; upon which Lúshin “had the honour of congratulating him.” Maidánoff declaimed to us fragments from his poem, “The Murderer” (this occurred in the very thick of romanticism), which he intended to publish in a black binding, with the title in letters of the colour of blood. We stole his hat from the knees of the pettifogger from the Íversky Gate, and made him dance the kazák dance by way of redeeming it. We dressed old Vonifáty up in a mob-cap, and the young Princess put on a man’s hat.... It is impossible to recount all we did. Byelovzóroff alone remained most of the time in a corner, angry and frowning.... Sometimes his eyes became suffused with blood, he grew scarlet all over and seemed to be on the very point of swooping down upon all of us and scattering us on all sides, like chips; but the Princess glanced at him, menaced him with her finger, and again he retired into his corner.
We were completely exhausted at last. The old Princess was equal to anything, as she put it,—no shouts disconcerted her,—but she felt tired and wished to rest. At midnight supper was served, consisting of a bit of old, dry cheese and a few cold patties filled with minced ham, which seemed to us more savoury than any pasty; there was only one bottle of wine, and that was rather queer:—dark, with a swollen neck, and the wine in it left an after-taste of pinkish dye; however, no one drank it. Weary and happy to exhaustion, I emerged from the wing; a thunder-storm seemed to be brewing; the black storm-clouds grew larger and crept across the sky, visibly altering their smoky outlines. A light breeze was uneasily quivering in the dark trees, and somewhere beyond the horizon the thunder was growling angrily and dully, as though to itself.
I made my way through the back door to my room. My nurse-valet was sleeping on the floor and I was obliged to step over him; he woke up, saw me, and reported that my mother was angry with me, and had wanted to send after me again, but that my father had restrained her. I never went to bed without having bidden my mother good night and begged her blessing. There was no help for it! I told my valet that I would undress myself and go to bed unaided,—and extinguished the candle. But I did not undress and I did not go to bed.
I seated myself on a chair and sat there for a long time, as though enchanted. That which I felt was so new and so sweet.... I sat there, hardly looking around me and without moving, breathing slowly, and only laughing silently now, as I recalled, now inwardly turning cold at the thought that I was in love, that here it was, that love. Zinaída’s face floated softly before me in the darkness—floated, but did not float away; her lips still smiled as mysteriously as ever, her eyes gazed somewhat askance at me, interrogatively, thoughtfully and tenderly ... as at the moment when I had parted from her. At last I rose on tiptoe, stepped to my bed and cautiously, without undressing, laid my head on the pillow, as though endeavouring by the sharp movement to frighten off that wherewith I was filled to overflowing....
I lay down, but did not even close an eye. I speedily perceived that certain faint reflections kept constantly falling into my room.... I raised myself and looked out of the window. Its frame was distinctly defined from the mysteriously and confusedly whitened panes. “‘Tis the thunder-storm,”—I thought,—and so, in fact, there was a thunder-storm; but it had passed very far away, so that even the claps of thunder were not audible; only in the sky long, indistinct, branching flashes of lightning, as it were, were uninterruptedly flashing up. They were not