After dinner the usual party assembled again at the lodge, and the young princess came out to them. All were there in full force, just as on that first evening which I never forgot; even Nirmatsky had limped to see her; Meidanov came this time earliest of all, he brought some new verses. The games of forfeits began again, but without the strange pranks, the practical jokes and noise – the gipsy element had vanished. Zinaïda gave a different tone to the proceedings. I sat beside her by virtue of my office as page. Among other things, she proposed that any one who had to pay a forfeit should tell his dream; but this was not successful. The dreams were either uninteresting (Byelovzorov had dreamed that he fed his mare on carp, and that she had a wooden head), or unnatural and invented. Meidanov regaled us with a regular romance; there were sepulchres in it, and angels with lyres, and talking flowers and music wafted from afar. Zinaïda did not let him finish. ‘If we are to have compositions,’ she said, ‘let every one tell something made up, and no pretence about it.’ The first who had to speak was again Byelovzorov.
The young hussar was confused. ‘I can’t make up anything!’ he cried.
‘What nonsense!’ said Zinaïda. ‘Well, imagine, for instance, you are married, and tell us how you would treat your wife. Would you lock her up?’
‘Yes, I should lock her up.’
‘And would you stay with her yourself?’
‘Yes, I should certainly stay with her myself.’
‘Very good. Well, but if she got sick of that, and she deceived you?’
‘I should kill her.’
‘And if she ran away?’
‘I should catch her up and kill her all the same.’
‘Oh. And suppose now I were your wife, what would you do then?’
Byelovzorov was silent a minute. ‘I should kill myself… .’
Zinaïda laughed. ‘I see yours is not a long story.’
The next forfeit was Zinaïda’s. She looked at the ceiling and considered. ‘Well, listen, she began at last, ‘what I have thought of… . Picture to yourselves a magnificent palace, a summer night, and a marvellous ball. This ball is given by a young queen. Everywhere gold and marble, crystal, silk, lights, diamonds, flowers, fragrant scents, every caprice of luxury.’
‘You love luxury?’ Lushin interposed. ‘Luxury is beautiful,’ she retorted; ‘I love everything beautiful.’
‘More than what is noble?’ he asked.
‘That’s something clever, I don’t understand it. Don’t interrupt me. So the ball is magnificent. There are crowds of guests, all of them are young, handsome, and brave, all are frantically in love with the queen.’
‘Are there no women among the guests?’ queried Malevsky.
‘No – or wait a minute – yes, there are some.’
‘Are they all ugly?’
‘No, charming. But the men are all in love with the queen. She is tall and graceful; she has a little gold diadem on her black hair.’
I looked at Zinaïda, and at that instant she seemed to me so much above all of us, there was such bright intelligence, and such power about her unruffled brows, that I thought: ‘You are that queen!’
‘They all throng about her,’ Zinaïda went on, ‘and all lavish the most flattering speeches upon her.’
‘And she likes flattery?’ Lushin queried.
‘What an intolerable person! he keeps interrupting … who doesn’t like flattery?’
‘One more last question,’ observed Malevsky, ‘has the queen a husband?’
‘I hadn’t thought about that. No, why should she have a husband?’
‘To be sure,’ assented Malevsky, ‘why should she have a husband?’
‘Silence!’ cried Meidanov in French, which he spoke very badly.
‘Merci!’ Zinaïda said to him. ‘And so the queen hears their speeches, and hears the music, but does not look at one of the guests. Six windows are open from top to bottom, from floor to ceiling, and beyond them is a dark sky with big stars, a dark garden with big trees. The queen gazes out into the garden. Out there among the trees is a fountain; it is white in the darkness, and rises up tall, tall as an apparition. The queen hears, through the talk and the music, the soft splash of its waters. She gazes and thinks: you are all, gentlemen, noble, clever, and rich, you crowd round me, you treasure every word I utter, you are all ready to die at my feet, I hold you in my power … but out there, by the fountain, by that splashing water, stands and waits he whom I love, who holds me in his power. He has neither rich raiment nor precious stones, no one knows him, but he awaits me, and is certain I shall come – and I shall come – and there is no power that could stop me when I want to go out to him, and to stay with him, and be lost with him out there in the darkness of the garden, under the whispering of the trees, and the splash of the fountain … ’ Zinaïda ceased.
‘Is that a made-up story?’ Malevsky inquired slyly. Zinaïda did not even look at him.
‘And what should we have done, gentlemen?’ Lushin began suddenly, ‘if we had been among the guests, and had known of the lucky fellow at the fountain?’
‘Stop a minute, stop a minute,’ interposed Zinaïda, ‘I will tell you myself what each of you would have done. You, Byelovzorov, would have challenged him to a duel; you, Meidanov, would have written an epigram on him … No, though, you can’t write epigrams, you would have made up a long poem on him in the style of Barbier, and would have inserted your production in the Telegraph. You, Nirmatsky, would have borrowed … no, you would have lent him money at high interest; you, doctor,… ’ she stopped. ‘There, I really don’t know what you would have done… .’
‘In the capacity of court physician,’ answered Lushin, ‘I would have advised the queen not to give balls when she was not in the humour for entertaining her guests… .’
‘Perhaps you would have been right. And you, Count?… ’
‘And I?’ repeated Malevsky with his evil smile… .
‘You would offer him a poisoned sweetmeat.’ Malevsky’s face changed slightly, and assumed for an instant a Jewish expression, but he laughed directly.
‘And as for you, Voldemar,… ’ Zinaïda went on, ‘but that’s enough, though; let us play another game.’
‘M’sieu Voldemar, as the queen’s page, would have held up her train when she ran into the garden,’ Malevsky remarked malignantly.
I was crimson with anger, but Zinaïda hurriedly laid a hand on my shoulder, and getting up, said in a rather shaky voice: ‘I have never given your excellency the right to be rude, and therefore I will ask you to leave us.’ She pointed to the door.
‘Upon my word, princess,’ muttered Malevsky, and he turned quite pale.
‘The princess is right,’ cried Byelovzorov, and he too rose.
‘Good God, I’d not the least idea,’ Malevsky went on, ‘in my words there was nothing, I think, that could … I had no notion of offending you… . Forgive me.’
Zinaïda looked him up and down coldly, and coldly smiled. ‘Stay, then, certainly,’ she pronounced with a careless gesture of her arm.
‘M’sieu Voldemar and I were needlessly incensed. It is your pleasure to sting … may it do you good.’
‘Forgive me,’ Malevsky repeated once more; while I, my thoughts dwelling on Zinaïda’s gesture, said to myself again that no real queen could with greater dignity have shown a presumptuous subject to the door.
The game of forfeits went on for a short time after this little scene; every one felt rather ill at ease, not so much on account of this scene, as from another, not quite definite, but oppressive feeling. No one spoke of it, but every one was conscious of it in himself and in his neighbour. Meidanov read us his verses; and Malevsky praised them with exaggerated warmth. ‘He wants to show how good he is now,’ Lushin whispered to me. We soon broke up. A mood of reverie seemed to have come upon Zinaïda; the old princess sent word that she had a headache; Nirmatsky began to complain of his rheumatism… .
I could not for a long while get to sleep. I had been impressed by Zinaïda’s story. ‘Can there have been a hint in it?’ I asked myself: ‘and at whom and at what was she hinting? And if there really is anything to hint at … how is one to make up one’s mind? No, no, it can’t be,’ I whispered, turning over from one hot cheek on to the other… . But I remembered the expression of Zinaïda’s face during her story… . I remembered the exclamation that had broken from Lushin in the Neskutchny gardens, the sudden change in her behaviour to me, and I was lost in conjectures. ‘Who is he?’ These three words seemed to stand before my eyes traced upon the darkness; a lowering malignant cloud seemed hanging over me, and I felt its oppressiveness, and waited for it to break. I had grown used to many things of late; I had learned much from what I had seen at the Zasyekins; their disorderly ways, tallow candle-ends, broken knives and forks, grumpy Vonifaty, and shabby maid-servants, the manners of the old princess – all their strange mode of life no longer struck me… . But what I was dimly discerning now in Zinaïda, I could never get used to… . ‘An adventuress!’ my mother had said of her one day. An adventuress – she, my idol, my divinity? This word stabbed me, I tried to get away from it into my pillow, I was indignant – and at the same time what would I not have agreed to, what would I not have given only to be that lucky fellow at the fountain!… My blood was on fire and boiling within me. ‘The garden … the fountain,’ I mused… . ‘I will go into the garden.’ I dressed quickly and slipped out of the house. The night was dark, the trees scarcely whispered, a soft chill air breathed down from the sky, a smell of fennel trailed across from the kitchen garden. I went through all the walks; the light sound of my own footsteps at once confused and emboldened me; I stood still, waited and heard my heart beating fast and loudly. At last I went up to the fence and leaned against the thin bar. Suddenly, or was it my fancy, a woman’s figure flashed by, a few paces from me … I strained my eyes eagerly into the darkness, I held my breath. What was that? Did I hear steps, or was it my heart beating again? ‘Who is here?’ I faltered, hardly audibly. What was that again, a smothered laugh … or a rustling in the leaves … or a sigh just at my ear? I felt afraid … ‘Who is here?’ I repeated still more softly.
The air blew in a gust for an instant; a streak of fire flashed across the sky; it was a star falling. ‘Zinaïda?’ I wanted to call, but the word died away on my lips. And all at once everything became profoundly still around, as is often the case in the middle of the night… . Even the grasshoppers ceased their churr in the trees – only a window rattled somewhere. I stood and stood, and then went back to my room, to my chilled bed. I felt a strange sensation; as though I had gone to a tryst, and had been left lonely, and had passed close by another’s happiness.