At eight o’clock precisely, in my tail-coat and with my hair brushed up into a tuft on my head, I entered the passage of the lodge, where the princess lived. The old servant looked crossly at me and got up unwillingly from his bench. There was a sound of merry voices in the drawing-room. I opened the door and fell back in amazement. In the middle of the room was the young princess, standing on a chair, holding a man’s hat in front of her; round the chair crowded some half a dozen men. They were trying to put their hands into the hat, while she held it above their heads, shaking it violently. On seeing me, she cried, ‘Stay, stay, another guest, he must have a ticket too,’ and leaping lightly down from the chair she took me by the cuff of my coat ‘Come along,’ she said, ‘why are you standing still? Messieurs, let me make you acquainted: this is M’sieu Voldemar, the son of our neighbour. And this,’ she went on, addressing me, and indicating her guests in turn, ‘Count Malevsky, Doctor Lushin, Meidanov the poet, the retired captain Nirmatsky, and Byelovzorov the hussar, whom you’ve seen already. I hope you will be good friends.’ I was so confused that I did not even bow to any one; in Doctor Lushin I recognised the dark man who had so mercilessly put me to shame in the garden; the others were unknown to me.
‘Count!’ continued Zinaïda, ‘write M’sieu Voldemar a ticket.’
‘That’s not fair,’ was objected in a slight Polish accent by the count, a very handsome and fashionably dressed brunette, with expressive brown eyes, a thin little white nose, and delicate little moustaches over a tiny mouth. ‘This gentleman has not been playing forfeits with us.’
‘It’s unfair,’ repeated in chorus Byelovzorov and the gentleman described as a retired captain, a man of forty, pock-marked to a hideous degree, curly-headed as a negro, round-shouldered, bandy-legged, and dressed in a military coat without epaulets, worn unbuttoned.
‘Write him a ticket, I tell you,’ repeated the young princess. ‘What’s this mutiny? M’sieu Voldemar is with us for the first time, and there are no rules for him yet. It’s no use grumbling – write it, I wish it.’
The count shrugged his shoulders but bowed submissively, took the pen in his white, ring-bedecked fingers, tore off a scrap of paper and wrote on it.
‘At least let us explain to Mr. Voldemar what we are about,’ Lushin began in a sarcastic voice, ‘or else he will be quite lost. Do you see, young man, we are playing forfeits? the princess has to pay a forfeit, and the one who draws the lucky lot is to have the privilege of kissing her hand. Do you understand what I’ve told you?’
I simply stared at him, and continued to stand still in bewilderment, while the young princess jumped up on the chair again, and again began waving the hat. They all stretched up to her, and I went after the rest.
‘Meidanov,’ said the princess to a tall young man with a thin face, little dim-sighted eyes, and exceedingly long black hair, ‘you as a poet ought to be magnanimous, and give up your number to M’sieu Voldemar so that he may have two chances instead of one.’
But Meidanov shook his head in refusal, and tossed his hair. After all the others I put my hand into the hat, and unfolded my lot… . Heavens! what was my condition when I saw on it the word, Kiss!
‘Kiss!’ I could not help crying aloud.
‘Bravo! he has won it,’ the princess said quickly. ‘How glad I am!’ She came down from the chair and gave me such a bright sweet look, that my heart bounded. ‘Are you glad?’ she asked me.
‘Me?’ … I faltered.
‘Sell me your lot,’ Byelovzorov growled suddenly just in my ear. ‘I’ll give you a hundred roubles.’
I answered the hussar with such an indignant look, that Zinaïda clapped her hands, while Lushin cried, ‘He’s a fine fellow!’
‘But, as master of the ceremonies,’ he went on, ‘it’s my duty to see that all the rules are kept. M’sieu Voldemar, go down on one knee. That is our regulation.’
Zinaïda stood in front of me, her head a little on one side as though to get a better look at me; she held out her hand to me with dignity. A mist passed before my eyes; I meant to drop on one knee, sank on both, and pressed my lips to Zinaïda’s fingers so awkwardly that I scratched myself a little with the tip of her nail.
‘Well done!’ cried Lushin, and helped me to get up.
The game of forfeits went on. Zinaïda sat me down beside her. She invented all sorts of extraordinary forfeits! She had among other things to represent a ‘statue,’ and she chose as a pedestal the hideous Nirmatsky, told him to bow down in an arch, and bend his head down on his breast. The laughter never paused for an instant. For me, a boy constantly brought up in the seclusion of a dignified manor-house, all this noise and uproar, this unceremonious, almost riotous gaiety, these relations with unknown persons, were simply intoxicating. My head went round, as though from wine. I began laughing and talking louder than the others, so much so that the old princess, who was sitting in the next room with some sort of clerk from the Tversky gate, invited by her for consultation on business, positively came in to look at me. But I felt so happy that I did not mind anything, I didn’t care a straw for any one’s jeers, or dubious looks. Zinaïda continued to show me a preference, and kept me at her side. In one forfeit, I had to sit by her, both hidden under one silk handkerchief: I was to tell her my secret. I remember our two heads being all at once in a warm, half-transparent, fragrant darkness, the soft, close brightness of her eyes in the dark, and the burning breath from her parted lips, and the gleam of her teeth and the ends of her hair tickling me and setting me on fire. I was silent. She smiled slyly and mysteriously, and at last whispered to me, ‘Well, what is it?’ but I merely blushed and laughed, and turned away, catching my breath. We got tired of forfeits – we began to play a game with a string. My God! what were my transports when, for not paying attention, I got a sharp and vigorous slap on my fingers from her, and how I tried afterwards to pretend that I was absent-minded, and she teased me, and would not touch the hands I held out to her! What didn’t we do that evening! We played the piano, and sang and danced and acted a gypsy encampment. Nirmatsky was dressed up as a bear, and made to drink salt water. Count Malevsky showed us several sorts of card tricks, and finished, after shuffling the cards, by dealing himself all the trumps at whist, on which Lushin ‘had the honour of congratulating him.’ Meidanov recited portions from his poem ‘The Manslayer’ (romanticism was at its height at this period), which he intended to bring out in a black cover with the title in blood-red letters; they stole the clerk’s cap off his knee, and made him dance a Cossack dance by way of ransom for it; they dressed up old Vonifaty in a woman’s cap, and the young princess put on a man’s hat… . I could not enumerate all we did. Only Byelovzorov kept more and more in the background, scowling and angry… . Sometimes his eyes looked bloodshot, he flushed all over, and it seemed every minute as though he would rush out upon us all and scatter us like shavings in all directions; but the young princess would glance at him, and shake her finger at him, and he would retire into his corner again.
We were quite worn out at last. Even the old princess, though she was ready for anything, as she expressed it, and no noise wearied her, felt tired at last, and longed for peace and quiet. At twelve o’clock at night, supper was served, consisting of a piece of stale dry cheese, and some cold turnovers of minced ham, which seemed to me more delicious than any pastry I had ever tasted; there was only one bottle of wine, and that was a strange one; a dark-coloured bottle with a wide neck, and the wine in it was of a pink hue; no one drank it, however. Tired out and faint with happiness, I left the lodge; at parting Zinaïda pressed my hand warmly, and again smiled mysteriously.
The night air was heavy and damp in my heated face; a storm seemed to be gathering; black stormclouds grew and crept across the sky, their smoky outlines visibly changing. A gust of wind shivered restlessly in the dark trees, and somewhere, far away on the horizon, muffled thunder angrily muttered as it were to itself.
I made my way up to my room by the back stairs. My old man-nurse was asleep on the floor, and I had to step over him; he waked up, saw me, and told me that my mother had again been very angry with me, and had wished to send after me again, but that my father had prevented her. (I had never gone to bed without saying good-night to my mother, and asking her blessing. There was no help for it now!)
I told my man that I would undress and go to bed by myself, and I put out the candle. But I did not undress, and did not go to bed.
I sat down on a chair, and sat a long while, as though spell-bound. What I was feeling was so new and so sweet… . I sat still, hardly looking round and not moving, drew slow breaths, and only from time to time laughed silently at some recollection, or turned cold within at the thought that I was in love, that this was she, that this was love. Zinaïda’s face floated slowly before me in the darkness – floated, and did not float away; her lips still wore the same enigmatic smile, her eyes watched me, a little from one side, with a questioning, dreamy, tender look … as at the instant of parting from her. At last I got up, walked on tiptoe to my bed, and without undressing, laid my head carefully on the pillow, as though I were afraid by an abrupt movement to disturb what filled my soul… . I lay down, but did not even close my eyes. Soon I noticed that faint glimmers of light of some sort were thrown continually into the room… . I sat up and looked at the window. The window-frame could be clearly distinguished from the mysteriously and dimly-lighted panes. It is a storm, I thought; and a storm it really was, but it was raging so very far away that the thunder could not be heard; only blurred, long, as it were branching, gleams of lightning flashed continually over the sky; it was not flashing, though, so much as quivering and twitching like the wing of a dying bird. I got up, went to the window, and stood there till morning… . The lightning never ceased for an instant; it was what is called among the peasants a sparrow night. I gazed at the dumb sandy plain, at the dark mass of the Neskutchny gardens, at the yellowish façades of the distant buildings, which seemed to quiver too at each faint flash… . I gazed, and could not turn away; these silent lightning flashes, these gleams seemed in response to the secret silent fires which were aglow within me. Morning began to dawn; the sky was flushed in patches of crimson. As the sun came nearer, the lightning grew gradually paler, and ceased; the quivering gleams were fewer and fewer, and vanished at last, drowned in the sobering positive light of the coming day… .
And my lightning flashes vanished too. I felt great weariness and peace … but Zinaïda’s image still floated triumphant over my soul. But it too, this image, seemed more tranquil: like a swan rising out of the reeds of a bog, it stood out from the other unbeautiful figures surrounding it, and as I fell asleep, I flung myself before it in farewell, trusting adoration… .
Oh, sweet emotions, gentle harmony, goodness and peace of the softened heart, melting bliss of the first raptures of love, where are they, where are they?