The next morning, when I came down to tea, my mother scolded me – less severely, however, than I had expected – and made me tell her how I had spent the previous evening. I answered her in few words, omitting many details, and trying to give the most innocent air to everything.
‘Anyway, they’re people who’re not comme il faut,’ my mother commented, ‘and you’ve no business to be hanging about there, instead of preparing yourself for the examination, and doing your work.’
As I was well aware that my mother’s anxiety about my studies was confined to these few words, I did not feel it necessary to make any rejoinder; but after morning tea was over, my father took me by the arm, and turning into the garden with me, forced me to tell him all I had seen at the Zasyekins’.
A curious influence my father had over me, and curious were the relations existing between us. He took hardly any interest in my education, but he never hurt my feelings; he respected my freedom, he treated me – if I may so express it – with courtesy,… only he never let me be really close to him. I loved him, I admired him, he was my ideal of a man – and Heavens! how passionately devoted I should have been to him, if I had not been continually conscious of his holding me off! But when he liked, he could almost instantaneously, by a single word, a single gesture, call forth an unbounded confidence in him. My soul expanded, I chattered away to him, as to a wise friend, a kindly teacher … then he as suddenly got rid of me, and again he was keeping me off, gently and affectionately, but still he kept me off.
Sometimes he was in high spirits, and then he was ready to romp and frolic with me, like a boy (he was fond of vigorous physical exercise of every sort); once – it never happened a second time! – he caressed me with such tenderness that I almost shed tears… . But high spirits and tenderness alike vanished completely, and what had passed between us, gave me nothing to build on for the future – it was as though I had dreamed it all. Sometimes I would scrutinise his clever handsome bright face … my heart would throb, and my whole being yearn to him … he would seem to feel what was going on within me, would give me a passing pat on the cheek, and go away, or take up some work, or suddenly freeze all over as only he knew how to freeze, and I shrank into myself at once, and turned cold too. His rare fits of friendliness to me were never called forth by my silent, but intelligible entreaties: they always occurred unexpectedly. Thinking over my father’s character later, I have come to the conclusion that he had no thoughts to spare for me and for family life; his heart was in other things, and found complete satisfaction elsewhere. ‘Take for yourself what you can, and don’t be ruled by others; to belong to oneself – the whole savour of life lies in that,’ he said to me one day. Another time, I, as a young democrat, fell to airing my views on liberty (he was ‘kind,’ as I used to call it, that day; and at such times I could talk to him as I liked). ‘Liberty,’ he repeated; ‘and do you know what can give a man liberty?’
‘Will, his own will, and it gives power, which is better than liberty. Know how to will, and you will be free, and will lead.’
‘My father, before all, and above all, desired to live, and lived… . Perhaps he had a presentiment that he would not have long to enjoy the ‘savour’ of life: he died at forty-two.
I described my evening at the Zasyekins’ minutely to my father. Half attentively, half carelessly, he listened to me, sitting on a garden seat, drawing in the sand with his cane. Now and then he laughed, shot bright, droll glances at me, and spurred me on with short questions and assents. At first I could not bring myself even to utter the name of Zinaïda, but I could not restrain myself long, and began singing her praises. My father still laughed; then he grew thoughtful, stretched, and got up. I remembered that as he came out of the house he had ordered his horse to be saddled. He was a splendid horseman, and, long before Rarey, had the secret of breaking in the most vicious horses.
‘Shall I come with you, father?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he answered, and his face resumed its ordinary expression of friendly indifference. ‘Go alone, if you like; and tell the coachman I’m not going.’
He turned his back on me and walked rapidly away. I looked after him; he disappeared through the gates. I saw his hat moving along beside the fence; he went into the Zasyekins’.
He stayed there not more than an hour, but then departed at once for the town, and did not return home till evening.
After dinner I went myself to the Zasyekins’. In the drawing-room I found only the old princess. On seeing me she scratched her head under her cap with a knitting-needle, and suddenly asked me, could I copy a petition for her.
‘With pleasure,’ I replied, sitting down on the edge of a chair.
‘Only mind and make the letters bigger,’ observed the princess, handing me a dirty sheet of paper; ‘and couldn’t you do it to-day, my good sir?’
‘Certainly, I will copy it to-day.’
The door of the next room was just opened, and in the crack I saw the face of Zinaïda, pale and pensive, her hair flung carelessly back; she stared at me with big chilly eyes, and softly closed the door.
‘Zina, Zina!’ called the old lady. Zinaïda made no response. I took home the old lady’s petition and spent the whole evening over it.