The whole evening and the following day I spent in a sort of dejected apathy. I remember I tried to work and took up Keidanov, but the boldly printed lines and pages of the famous text-book passed before my eyes in vain. I read ten times over the words: ‘Julius Caesar was distinguished by warlike courage.’ I did not understand anything and threw the book aside. Before dinner-time I pomaded myself once more, and once more put on my tail-coat and necktie.
‘What’s that for?’ my mother demanded. ‘You’re not a student yet, and God knows whether you’ll get through the examination. And you’ve not long had a new jacket! You can’t throw it away!’
‘There will be visitors,’ I murmured almost in despair.
‘What nonsense! fine visitors indeed!’
I had to submit. I changed my tail-coat for my jacket, but I did not take off the necktie. The princess and her daughter made their appearance half an hour before dinner-time; the old lady had put on, in addition to the green dress with which I was already acquainted, a yellow shawl, and an old-fashioned cap adorned with flame-coloured ribbons. She began talking at once about her money difficulties, sighing, complaining of her poverty, and imploring assistance, but she made herself at home; she took snuff as noisily, and fidgeted and lolled about in her chair as freely as ever. It never seemed to have struck her that she was a princess. Zinaïda on the other hand was rigid, almost haughty in her demeanour, every inch a princess. There was a cold immobility and dignity in her face. I should not have recognised it; I should not have known her smiles, her glances, though I thought her exquisite in this new aspect too. She wore a light barége dress with pale blue flowers on it; her hair fell in long curls down her cheek in the English fashion; this style went well with the cold expression of her face. My father sat beside her during dinner, and entertained his neighbour with the finished and serene courtesy peculiar to him. He glanced at her from time to time, and she glanced at him, but so strangely, almost with hostility. Their conversation was carried on in French; I was surprised, I remember, at the purity of Zinaïda’s accent. The princess, while we were at table, as before made no ceremony; she ate a great deal, and praised the dishes. My mother was obviously bored by her, and answered her with a sort of weary indifference; my father faintly frowned now and then. My mother did not like Zinaïda either. ‘A conceited minx,’ she said next day. ‘And fancy, what she has to be conceited about, avec sa mine de grisette!’
‘It’s clear you have never seen any grisettes,’ my father observed to her.
‘Thank God, I haven’t!’
‘Thank God, to be sure … only how can you form an opinion of them, then?’
To me Zinaïda had paid no attention whatever. Soon after dinner the princess got up to go.
‘I shall rely on your kind offices, Maria Nikolaevna and Piotr Vassilitch,’ she said in a doleful sing-song to my mother and father. ‘I’ve no help for it! There were days, but they are over. Here I am, an excellency, and a poor honour it is with nothing to eat!’
My father made her a respectful bow and escorted her to the door of the hall. I was standing there in my short jacket, staring at the floor, like a man under sentence of death. Zinaïda’s treatment of me had crushed me utterly. What was my astonishment, when, as she passed me, she whispered quickly with her former kind expression in her eyes: ‘Come to see us at eight, do you hear, be sure… .’ I simply threw up my hands, but already she was gone, flinging a white scarf over her head.