The princess called on my mother as she had promised and made a disagreeable impression on her. I was not present at their interview, but at table my mother told my father that this Prince Zasyekin struck her as a femme très vulgaire, that she had quite worn her out begging her to interest Prince Sergei in their behalf, that she seemed to have no end of lawsuits and affairs on hand – de vilaines affaires d’argent – and must be a very troublesome and litigious person. My mother added, however, that she had asked her and her daughter to dinner the next day (hearing the word ‘daughter’ I buried my nose in my plate), for after all she was a neighbour and a person of title. Upon this my father informed my mother that he remembered now who this lady was; that he had in his youth known the deceased Prince Zasyekin, a very well-bred, but frivolous and absurd person; that he had been nicknamed in society ‘le Parisien,’ from having lived a long while in Paris; that he had been very rich, but had gambled away all his property; and for some unknown reason, probably for money, though indeed he might have chosen better, if so, my father added with a cold smile, he had married the daughter of an agent, and after his marriage had entered upon speculations and ruined himself utterly.
‘If only she doesn’t try to borrow money,’ observed my mother.
‘That’s exceedingly possible,’ my father responded tranquilly. ‘Does she speak French?’
‘H’m. It’s of no consequence anyway. I think you said you had asked the daughter too; some one was telling me she was a very charming and cultivated girl.’
‘Ah! Then she can’t take after her mother.’
‘Nor her father either,’ rejoined my father. ‘He was cultivated indeed, but a fool.’
My mother sighed and sank into thought. My father said no more. I felt very uncomfortable during this conversation.
After dinner I went into the garden, but without my gun. I swore to myself that I would not go near the Zasyekins’ garden, but an irresistible force drew me thither, and not in vain. I had hardly reached the fence when I caught sight of Zinaïda. This time she was alone. She held a book in her hands, and was coming slowly along the path. She did not notice me.
I almost let her pass by; but all at once I changed my mind and coughed.
She turned round, but did not stop, pushed back with one hand the broad blue ribbon of her round straw hat, looked at me, smiled slowly, and again bent her eyes on the book.
I took off my cap, and after hesitating a moment, walked away with a heavy heart. ‘Que suis-je pour elle?’ I thought (God knows why) in French.
Familiar footsteps sounded behind me; I looked round, my father came up to me with his light, rapid walk.
‘Is that the young princess?’ he asked me.
‘Why, do you know her?’
‘I saw her this morning at the princess’s.’
My father stopped, and, turning sharply on his heel, went back. When he was on a level with Zinaïda, he made her a courteous bow. She, too, bowed to him, with some astonishment on her face, and dropped her book. I saw how she looked after him. My father was always irreproachably dressed, simple and in a style of his own; but his figure had never struck me as more graceful, never had his grey hat sat more becomingly on his curls, which were scarcely perceptibly thinner than they had once been.
I bent my steps toward Zinaïda, but she did not even glance at me; she picked up her book again and went away.