First Love

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For the next five or six days I hardly saw Zinaïda; she said she was ill, which did not, however, prevent the usual visitors from calling at the lodge to pay – as they expressed it, their duty – all, that is, except Meidanov, who promptly grew dejected and sulky when he had not an opportunity of being enthusiastic. Byelovzorov sat sullen and red-faced in a corner, buttoned up to the throat; on the refined face of Malevsky there flickered continually an evil smile; he had really fallen into disfavour with Zinaïda, and waited with special assiduity on the old princess, and even went with her in a hired coach to call on the Governor-General. This expedition turned out unsuccessful, however, and even led to an unpleasant experience for Malevsky; he was reminded of some scandal to do with certain officers of the engineers, and was forced in his explanations to plead his youth and inexperience at the time. Lushin came twice a day, but did not stay long; I was rather afraid of him after our last unreserved conversation, and at the same time felt a genuine attraction to him. He went a walk with me one day in the Neskutchny gardens, was very good-natured and nice, told me the names and properties of various plants and flowers, and suddenly, apropos of nothing at all, cried, hitting himself on his forehead, ‘And I, poor fool, thought her a flirt! it’s clear self-sacrifice is sweet for some people!’

‘What do you mean by that?’ I inquired.

‘I don’t mean to tell you anything,’ Lushin replied abruptly.

Zinaïda avoided me; my presence – I could not help noticing it – affected her disagreeably. She involuntarily turned away from me … involuntarily; that was what was so bitter, that was what crushed me! But there was no help for it, and I tried not to cross her path, and only to watch her from a distance, in which I was not always successful. As before, something incomprehensible was happening to her; her face was different, she was different altogether. I was specially struck by the change that had taken place in her one warm still evening. I was sitting on a low garden bench under a spreading elderbush; I was fond of that nook; I could see from there the window of Zinaïda’s room. I sat there; over my head a little bird was busily hopping about in the darkness of the leaves; a grey cat, stretching herself at full length, crept warily about the garden, and the first beetles were heavily droning in the air, which was still clear, though it was not light. I sat and gazed at the window, and waited to see if it would open; it did open, and Zinaïda appeared at it. She had on a white dress, and she herself, her face, shoulders, and arms, were pale to whiteness. She stayed a long while without moving, and looked out straight before her from under her knitted brows. I had never known such a look on her. Then she clasped her hands tightly, raised them to her lips, to her forehead, and suddenly pulling her fingers apart, she pushed back her hair behind her ears, tossed it, and with a sort of determination nodded her head, and slammed-to the window.

Three days later she met me in the garden. I was turning away, but she stopped me of herself.

‘Give me your arm,’ she said to me with her old affectionateness, ‘it’s a long while since we have had a talk together.’

I stole a look at her; her eyes were full of a soft light, and her face seemed as it were smiling through a mist.

‘Are you still not well?’ I asked her.

‘No, that’s all over now,’ she answered, and she picked a small red rose. ‘I am a little tired, but that too will pass off.’

‘And will you be as you used to be again?’ I asked.

Zinaïda put the rose up to her face, and I fancied the reflection of its bright petals had fallen on her cheeks. ‘Why, am I changed?’ she questioned me.

‘Yes, you are changed,’ I answered in a low voice.

‘I have been cold to you, I know,’ began Zinaïda, ‘but you mustn’t pay attention to that … I couldn’t help it… . Come, why talk about it!’

‘You don’t want me to love you, that’s what it is!’ I cried gloomily, in an involuntary outburst.

‘No, love me, but not as you did.’

‘How then?’

‘Let us be friends – come now!’ Zinaïda gave me the rose to smell. ‘Listen, you know I’m much older than you – I might be your aunt, really; well, not your aunt, but an older sister. And you … ’

‘You think me a child,’ I interrupted.

‘Well, yes, a child, but a dear, good clever one, whom I love very much. Do you know what? From this day forth I confer on you the rank of page to me; and don’t you forget that pages have to keep close to their ladies. Here is the token of your new dignity,’ she added, sticking the rose in the buttonhole of my jacket, ‘the token of my favour.’

‘I once received other favours from you,’ I muttered.

‘Ah!’ commented Zinaïda, and she gave me a sidelong look, ‘What a memory he has! Well? I’m quite ready now … ’ And stooping to me, she imprinted on my forehead a pure, tranquil kiss.

I only looked at her, while she turned away, and saying, ‘Follow me, my page,’ went into the lodge. I followed her – all in amazement. ‘Can this gentle, reasonable girl,’ I thought, ‘be the Zinaïda I used to know?’ I fancied her very walk was quieter, her whole figure statelier and more graceful …

And, mercy! with what fresh force love burned within me!

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