In the narrow and untidy passage of the lodge, which I entered with an involuntary tremor in all my limbs, I was met by an old grey-headed servant with a dark copper-coloured face, surly little pig’s eyes, and such deep furrows on his forehead and temples as I had never beheld in my life. He was carrying a plate containing the spine of a herring that had been gnawed at; and shutting the door that led into the room with his foot, he jerked out, ‘What do you want?’
‘Is the Princess Zasyekin at home?’ I inquired.
‘Vonifaty!’ a jarring female voice screamed from within.
The man without a word turned his back on me, exhibiting as he did so the extremely threadbare hindpart of his livery with a solitary reddish heraldic button on it; he put the plate down on the floor, and went away.
‘Did you go to the police station?’ the same female voice called again. The man muttered something in reply. ‘Eh… . Has some one come?’ I heard again… . ‘The young gentleman from next door. Ask him in, then.’
‘Will you step into the drawing-room?’ said the servant, making his appearance once more, and picking up the plate from the floor. I mastered my emotions, and went into the drawing-room.
I found myself in a small and not over clean apartment, containing some poor furniture that looked as if it had been hurriedly set down where it stood. At the window in an easy-chair with a broken arm was sitting a woman of fifty, bareheaded and ugly, in an old green dress, and a striped worsted wrap about her neck. Her small black eyes fixed me like pins.
I went up to her and bowed.
‘I have the honour of addressing the Princess Zasyekin?’
‘I am the Princess Zasyekin; and you are the son of Mr. V.?’
‘Yes. I have come to you with a message from my mother.’
‘Sit down, please. Vonifaty, where are my keys, have you seen them?’
I communicated to Madame Zasyekin my mother’s reply to her note. She heard me out, drumming with her fat red fingers on the window-pane, and when I had finished, she stared at me once more.
‘Very good; I’ll be sure to come,’ she observed at last. ‘But how young you are! How old are you, may I ask?’
‘Sixteen,’ I replied, with an involuntary stammer.
The princess drew out of her pocket some greasy papers covered with writing, raised them right up to her nose, and began looking through them.
‘A good age,’ she ejaculated suddenly, turning round restlessly on her chair. ‘And do you, pray, make yourself at home. I don’t stand on ceremony.’
‘No, indeed,’ I thought, scanning her unprepossessing person with a disgust I could not restrain.
At that instant another door flew open quickly, and in the doorway stood the girl I had seen the previous evening in the garden. She lifted her hand, and a mocking smile gleamed in her face.
‘Here is my daughter,’ observed the princess, indicating her with her elbow. ‘Zinotchka, the son of our neighbour, Mr. V. What is your name, allow me to ask?’
‘Vladimir,’ I answered, getting up, and stuttering in my excitement.
‘And your father’s name?’
‘Ah! I used to know a commissioner of police whose name was Vladimir Petrovitch too. Vonifaty! don’t look for my keys; the keys are in my pocket.’
The young girl was still looking at me with the same smile, faintly fluttering her eyelids, and putting her head a little on one side.
‘I have seen Monsieur Voldemar before,’ she began. (The silvery note of her voice ran through me with a sort of sweet shiver.) ‘You will let me call you so?’
‘Oh, please,’ I faltered.
‘Where was that?’ asked the princess.
The young princess did not answer her mother.
‘Have you anything to do just now?’ she said, not taking her eyes off me.
‘Would you like to help me wind some wool? Come in here, to me.’
She nodded to me and went out of the drawing-room. I followed her.
In the room we went into, the furniture was a little better, and was arranged with more taste. Though, indeed, at the moment, I was scarcely capable of noticing anything; I moved as in a dream and felt all through my being a sort of intense blissfulness that verged on imbecility.
The young princess sat down, took out a skein of red wool and, motioning me to a seat opposite her, carefully untied the skein and laid it across my hands. All this she did in silence with a sort of droll deliberation and with the same bright sly smile on her slightly parted lips. She began to wind the wool on a bent card, and all at once she dazzled me with a glance so brilliant and rapid, that I could not help dropping my eyes. When her eyes, which were generally half closed, opened to their full extent, her face was completely transfigured; it was as though it were flooded with light.
‘What did you think of me yesterday, M’sieu Voldemar?’ she asked after a brief pause. ‘You thought ill of me, I expect?’
‘I … princess … I thought nothing … how can I?… ’ I answered in confusion.
‘Listen,’ she rejoined. ‘You don’t know me yet. I’m a very strange person; I like always to be told the truth. You, I have just heard, are sixteen, and I am twenty-one: you see I’m a great deal older than you, and so you ought always to tell me the truth … and to do what I tell you,’ she added. ‘Look at me: why don’t you look at me?’
I was still more abashed; however, I raised my eyes to her. She smiled, not her former smile, but a smile of approbation. ‘Look at me,’ she said, dropping her voice caressingly: ‘I don’t dislike that … I like your face; I have a presentiment we shall be friends. But do you like me?’ she added slyly.
‘Princess … ’ I was beginning.
‘In the first place, you must call me Zinaïda Alexandrovna, and in the second place it’s a bad habit for children’ – (she corrected herself) ‘for young people – not to say straight out what they feel. That’s all very well for grown-up people. You like me, don’t you?’
Though I was greatly delighted that she talked so freely to me, still I was a little hurt. I wanted to show her that she had not a mere boy to deal with, and assuming as easy and serious an air as I could, I observed, ‘Certainly. I like you very much, Zinaïda Alexandrovna; I have no wish to conceal it.’
She shook her head very deliberately. ‘Have you a tutor?’ she asked suddenly.
‘No; I’ve not had a tutor for a long, long while.’
I told a lie; it was not a month since I had parted with my Frenchman.
‘Oh! I see then – you are quite grown-up.’
She tapped me lightly on the fingers. ‘Hold your hands straight!’ And she applied herself busily to winding the ball.
I seized the opportunity when she was looking down and fell to watching her, at first stealthily, then more and more boldly. Her face struck me as even more charming than on the previous evening; everything in it was so delicate, clever, and sweet. She was sitting with her back to a window covered with a white blind, the sunshine, streaming in through the blind, shed a soft light over her fluffy golden curls, her innocent neck, her sloping shoulders, and tender untroubled bosom. I gazed at her, and how dear and near she was already to me! It seemed to me I had known her a long while and had never known anything nor lived at all till I met her… . She was wearing a dark and rather shabby dress and an apron; I would gladly, I felt, have kissed every fold of that dress and apron. The tips of her little shoes peeped out from under her skirt; I could have bowed down in adoration to those shoes… . ‘And here I am sitting before her,’ I thought; ‘I have made acquaintance with her … what happiness, my God!’ I could hardly keep from jumping up from my chair in ecstasy, but I only swung my legs a little, like a small child who has been given sweetmeats.
I was as happy as a fish in water, and I could have stayed in that room for ever, have never left that place.
Her eyelids were slowly lifted, and once more her clear eyes shone kindly upon me, and again she smiled.
‘How you look at me!’ she said slowly, and she held up a threatening finger.
I blushed … ‘She understands it all, she sees all,’ flashed through my mind. ‘And how could she fail to understand and see it all?’
All at once there was a sound in the next room – the clink of a sabre.
‘Zina!’ screamed the princess in the drawing-room, ‘Byelovzorov has brought you a kitten.’
‘A kitten!’ cried Zinaïda, and getting up from her chair impetuously, she flung the ball of worsted on my knees and ran away.
I too got up and, laying the skein and the ball of wool on the window-sill, I went into the drawing-room and stood still, hesitating. In the middle of the room, a tabby kitten was lying with outstretched paws; Zinaïda was on her knees before it, cautiously lifting up its little face. Near the old princess, and filling up almost the whole space between the two windows, was a flaxen curly-headed young man, a hussar, with a rosy face and prominent eyes.
‘What a funny little thing!’ Zinaïda was saying; ‘and its eyes are not grey, but green, and what long ears! Thank you, Viktor Yegoritch! you are very kind.’
The hussar, in whom I recognised one of the young men I had seen the evening before, smiled and bowed with a clink of his spurs and a jingle of the chain of his sabre.
‘You were pleased to say yesterday that you wished to possess a tabby kitten with long ears … so I obtained it. Your word is law.’ And he bowed again.
The kitten gave a feeble mew and began sniffing the ground.
‘It’s hungry!’ cried Zinaïda. ‘Vonifaty, Sonia! bring some milk.’
A maid, in an old yellow gown with a faded kerchief at her neck, came in with a saucer of milk and set it before the kitten. The kitten started, blinked, and began lapping.
‘What a pink little tongue it has!’ remarked Zinaïda, putting her head almost on the ground and peeping at it sideways under its very nose.
The kitten having had enough began to purr and move its paws affectedly. Zinaïda got up, and turning to the maid said carelessly, ‘Take it away.’
‘For the kitten – your little hand,’ said the hussar, with a simper and a shrug of his strongly-built frame, which was tightly buttoned up in a new uniform.
‘Both,’ replied Zinaïda, and she held out her hands to him. While he was kissing them, she looked at me over his shoulder.
I stood stockstill in the same place and did not know whether to laugh, to say something, or to be silent. Suddenly through the open door into the passage I caught sight of our footman, Fyodor. He was making signs to me. Mechanically I went out to him.
‘What do you want?’ I asked.
‘Your mamma has sent for you,’ he said in a whisper. ‘She is angry that you have not come back with the answer.’
‘Why, have I been here long?’
‘Over an hour.’
‘Over an hour!’ I repeated unconsciously, and going back to the drawing-room I began to make bows and scrape with my heels.
‘Where are you off to?’ the young princess asked, glancing at me from behind the hussar.
‘I must go home. So I am to say,’ I added, addressing the old lady, ‘that you will come to us about two.’
‘Do you say so, my good sir.’
The princess hurriedly pulled out her snuff-box and took snuff so loudly that I positively jumped. ‘Do you say so,’ she repeated, blinking tearfully and sneezing.
I bowed once more, turned, and went out of the room with that sensation of awkwardness in my spine which a very young man feels when he knows he is being looked at from behind.
‘Mind you come and see us again, M’sieu Voldemar,’ Zinaïda called, and she laughed again.
‘Why is it she’s always laughing?’ I thought, as I went back home escorted by Fyodor, who said nothing to me, but walked behind me with an air of disapprobation. My mother scolded me and wondered what ever I could have been doing so long at the princess’s. I made her no reply and went off to my own room. I felt suddenly very sad… . I tried hard not to cry… . I was jealous of the hussar.