My real torments began from that instant. I racked my brains, changed my mind, and changed it back again, and kept an unremitting, though, as far as possible, secret watch on Zinaïda. A change had come over her, that was obvious. She began going walks alone – and long walks. Sometimes she would not see visitors; she would sit for hours together in her room. This had never been a habit of hers till now. I suddenly became – or fancied I had become – extraordinarily penetrating.
‘Isn’t it he? or isn’t it he?’ I asked myself, passing in inward agitation from one of her admirers to another. Count Malevsky secretly struck me as more to be feared than the others, though, for Zinaïda’s sake, I was ashamed to confess it to myself.
My watchfulness did not see beyond the end of my nose, and its secrecy probably deceived no one; any way, Doctor Lushin soon saw through me. But he, too, had changed of late; he had grown thin, he laughed as often, but his laugh seemed more hollow, more spiteful, shorter, an involuntary nervous irritability took the place of his former light irony and assumed cynicism.
‘Why are you incessantly hanging about here, young man?’ he said to me one day, when we were left alone together in the Zasyekins’ drawing-room. (The young princess had not come home from a walk, and the shrill voice of the old princess could be heard within; she was scolding the maid.) ‘You ought to be studying, working – while you’re young – and what are you doing?’
‘You can’t tell whether I work at home,’ I retorted with some haughtiness, but also with some hesitation.
‘A great deal of work you do! that’s not what you’re thinking about! Well, I won’t find fault with that … at your age that’s in the natural order of things. But you’ve been awfully unlucky in your choice. Don’t you see what this house is?’
‘I don’t understand you,’ I observed.
‘You don’t understand? so much the worse for you. I regard it as a duty to warn you. Old bachelors, like me, can come here, what harm can it do us! we’re tough, nothing can hurt us, what harm can it do us; but your skin’s tender yet – this air is bad for you – believe me, you may get harm from it.’
‘Why, are you well now? Are you in a normal condition? Is what you’re feeling – beneficial to you – good for you?’
‘Why, what am I feeling?’ I said, while in my heart I knew the doctor was right.
‘Ah, young man, young man,’ the doctor went on with an intonation that suggested that something highly insulting to me was contained in these two words, ‘what’s the use of your prevaricating, when, thank God, what’s in your heart is in your face, so far? But there, what’s the use of talking? I shouldn’t come here myself, if … (the doctor compressed his lips) … if I weren’t such a queer fellow. Only this is what surprises me; how it is, you, with your intelligence, don’t see what is going on around you?’
‘And what is going on?’ I put in, all on the alert.
The doctor looked at me with a sort of ironical compassion.
‘Nice of me!’ he said as though to himself, ‘as if he need know anything of it. In fact, I tell you again,’ he added, raising his voice, ‘the atmosphere here is not fit for you. You like being here, but what of that! it’s nice and sweet-smelling in a greenhouse – but there’s no living in it. Yes! do as I tell you, and go back to your Keidanov.’
The old princess came in, and began complaining to the doctor of her toothache. Then Zinaïda appeared.
‘Come,’ said the old princess, ‘you must scold her, doctor. She’s drinking iced water all day long; is that good for her, pray, with her delicate chest?’
‘Why do you do that?’ asked Lushin.
‘Why, what effect could it have?’
‘What effect? You might get a chill and die.’
‘Truly? Do you mean it? Very well – so much the better.’
‘A fine idea!’ muttered the doctor. The old princess had gone out.
‘Yes, a fine idea,’ repeated Zinaïda. ‘Is life such a festive affair? Just look about you… . Is it nice, eh? Or do you imagine I don’t understand it, and don’t feel it? It gives me pleasure – drinking iced water; and can you seriously assure me that such a life is worth too much to be risked for an instant’s pleasure – happiness I won’t even talk about.’
‘Oh, very well,’ remarked Lushin, ‘caprice and irresponsibility… . Those two words sum you up; your whole nature’s contained in those two words.’
Zinaïda laughed nervously.
‘You’re late for the post, my dear doctor. You don’t keep a good look-out; you’re behind the times. Put on your spectacles. I’m in no capricious humour now. To make fools of you, to make a fool of myself … much fun there is in that! – and as for irresponsibility … M’sieu Voldemar,’ Zinaïda added suddenly, stamping, ‘don’t make such a melancholy face. I can’t endure people to pity me.’ She went quickly out of the room.
‘It’s bad for you, very bad for you, this atmosphere, young man,’ Lushin said to me once more.