First Love

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Xviii

I got up in the morning with a headache. My emotion of the previous day had vanished. It was replaced by a dreary sense of blankness and a sort of sadness I had not known till then, as though something had died in me.

‘Why is it you’re looking like a rabbit with half its brain removed?’ said Lushin on meeting me. At lunch I stole a look first at my father, then at my mother: he was composed, as usual; she was, as usual, secretly irritated. I waited to see whether my father would make some friendly remarks to me, as he sometimes did… . But he did not even bestow his everyday cold greeting upon me. ‘Shall I tell Zinaïda all?’ I wondered… . ‘It’s all the same, anyway; all is at an end between us.’ I went to see her, but told her nothing, and, indeed, I could not even have managed to get a talk with her if I had wanted to. The old princess’s son, a cadet of twelve years old, had come from Petersburg for his holidays; Zinaïda at once handed her brother over to me. ‘Here,’ she said,’ my dear Volodya,’ – it was the first time she had used this pet-name to me – ‘is a companion for you. His name is Volodya, too. Please, like him; he is still shy, but he has a good heart. Show him Neskutchny gardens, go walks with him, take him under your protection. You’ll do that, won’t you? you’re so good, too!’ She laid both her hands affectionately on my shoulders, and I was utterly bewildered. The presence of this boy transformed me, too, into a boy. I looked in silence at the cadet, who stared as silently at me. Zinaïda laughed, and pushed us towards each other. ‘Embrace each other, children!’ We embraced each other. ‘Would you like me to show you the garden?’ I inquired of the cadet. ‘If you please,’ he replied, in the regular cadet’s hoarse voice. Zinaïda laughed again… . I had time to notice that she had never had such an exquisite colour in her face before. I set off with the cadet. There was an old-fashioned swing in our garden. I sat him down on the narrow plank seat, and began swinging him. He sat rigid in his new little uniform of stout cloth, with its broad gold braiding, and kept tight hold of the cords. ‘You’d better unbutton your collar,’ I said to him. ‘It’s all right; we’re used to it,’ he said, and cleared his throat. He was like his sister. The eyes especially recalled her, I liked being nice to him; and at the same time an aching sadness was gnawing at my heart. ‘Now I certainly am a child,’ I thought; ‘but yesterday… .’ I remembered where I had dropped my knife the night before, and looked for it. The cadet asked me for it, picked a thick stalk of wild parsley, cut a pipe out of it, and began whistling. Othello whistled too.

But in the evening how he wept, this Othello, in Zinaïda’s arms, when, seeking him out in a corner of the garden, she asked him why he was so depressed. My tears flowed with such violence that she was frightened. ‘What is wrong with you? What is it, Volodya?’ she repeated; and seeing I made no answer, and did not cease weeping, she was about to kiss my wet cheek. But I turned away from her, and whispered through my sobs, ‘I know all. Why did you play with me?… What need had you of my love?’

‘I am to blame, Volodya … ’ said Zinaïda. ‘I am very much to blame … ’ she added, wringing her hands. ‘How much there is bad and black and sinful in me!… But I am not playing with you now. I love you; you don’t even suspect why and how… . But what is it you know?’

What could I say to her? She stood facing me, and looked at me; and I belonged to her altogether from head to foot directly she looked at me… . A quarter of an hour later I was running races with the cadet and Zinaïda. I was not crying, I was laughing, though my swollen eyelids dropped a tear or two as I laughed. I had Zinaïda’s ribbon round my neck for a cravat, and I shouted with delight whenever I succeeded in catching her round the waist. She did just as she liked with me.

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