First Love

CHAPTER XXI

My father used every day to ride out on horse-back. He had a splendid English mare, a chestnut piebald, with a long slender neck and long legs, an inexhaustible and vicious beast. Her name was Electric. No one could ride her except my father. One day he came up to me in a good humour, a frame of mind in which I had not seen him for a long while; he was getting ready for his ride, and had already put on his spurs. I began entreating him to take me with him.

‘We’d much better have a game of leap-frog,’ my father replied. ‘You’ll never keep up with me on your cob.’

‘Yes, I will; I’ll put on spurs too.’

‘All right, come along then.’

We set off. I had a shaggy black horse, strong, and fairly spirited. It is true it had to gallop its utmost, when Electric went at full trot, still I was not left behind. I have never seen any one ride like my father; he had such a fine carelessly easy seat, that it seemed that the horse under him was conscious of it, and proud of its rider. We rode through all the boulevards, reached the ‘Maidens’ Field,’ jumped several fences (at first I had been afraid to take a leap, but my father had a contempt for cowards, and I soon ceased to feel fear), twice crossed the river Moskva, and I was under the impression that we were on our way home, especially as my father of his own accord observed that my horse was tired, when suddenly he turned off away from me at the Crimean ford, and galloped along the river-bank. I rode after him. When he had reached a high stack of old timber, he slid quickly off Electric, told me to dismount, and giving me his horse’s bridle, told me to wait for him there at the timber-stack, and, turning off into a small street, disappeared. I began walking up and down the river-bank, leading the horses, and scolding Electric, who kept pulling, shaking her head, snorting and neighing as she went; and when I stood still, never failed to paw the ground, and whining, bite my cob on the neck; in fact she conducted herself altogether like a spoilt thorough-bred. My father did not come back. A disagreeable damp mist rose from the river; a fine rain began softly blowing up, and spotting with tiny dark flecks the stupid grey timber-stack, which I kept passing and repassing, and was deadly sick of by now. I was terribly bored, and still my father did not come. A sort of sentry-man, a Fin, grey all over like the timber, and with a huge old-fashioned shako, like a pot, on his head, and with a halberd (and how ever came a sentry, if you think of it, on the banks of the Moskva!) drew near, and turning his wrinkled face, like an old woman’s, towards me, he observed, ‘What are you doing here with the horses, young master? Let me hold them.’

I made him no reply. He asked me for tobacco. To get rid of him (I was in a fret of impatience, too), I took a few steps in the direction in which my father had disappeared, then walked along the little street to the end, turned the corner, and stood still. In the street, forty paces from me, at the open window of a little wooden house, stood my father, his back turned to me; he was leaning forward over the window-sill, and in the house, half hidden by a curtain, sat a woman in a dark dress talking to my father; this woman was Zina´da.

I was petrified. This, I confess, I had never expected. My first impulse was to run away. ‘My father will look round,’ I thought, ‘and I am lost ...’ but a strange feeling—a feeling stronger than curiosity, stronger than jealousy, stronger even than fear—held me there. I began to watch; I strained my ears to listen. It seemed as though my father were insisting on something. Zina´da would not consent. I seem to see her face now—mournful, serious, lovely, and with an inexpressible impress of devotion, grief, love, and a sort of despair—I can find no other word for it. She uttered monosyllables, not raising her eyes, simply smiling—submissively, but without yielding. By that smile alone, I should have known my Zina´da of old days. My father shrugged his shoulders, and straightened his hat on his head, which was always a sign of impatience with him.... Then I caught the words: ‘Vous devez vous sÚparer de cette...’ Zina´da sat up, and stretched out her arm.... Suddenly, before my very eyes, the impossible happened. My father suddenly lifted the whip, with which he had been switching the dust off his coat, and I heard a sharp blow on that arm, bare to the elbow. I could scarcely restrain myself from crying out; while Zina´da shuddered, looked without a word at my father, and slowly raising her arm to her lips, kissed the streak of red upon it. My father flung away the whip, and running quickly up the steps, dashed into the house.... Zina´da turned round, and with outstretched arms and downcast head, she too moved away from the window.

My heart sinking with panic, with a sort of awe-struck horror, I rushed back, and running down the lane, almost letting go my hold of Electric, went back to the bank of the river. I could not think clearly of anything. I knew that my cold and reserved father was sometimes seized by fits of fury; and all the same, I could never comprehend what I had just seen.... But I felt at the time that, however long I lived, I could never forget the gesture, the glance, the smile, of Zina´da; that her image, this image so suddenly presented to me, was imprinted for ever on my memory. I stared vacantly at the river, and never noticed that my tears were streaming. ‘She is beaten,’ I was thinking,... ‘beaten ... beaten....’

‘Hullo! what are you doing? Give me the mare!’ I heard my father’s voice saying behind me.

Mechanically I gave him the bridle. He leaped on to Electric ... the mare, chill with standing, reared on her haunches, and leaped ten feet away ... but my father soon subdued her; he drove the spurs into her sides, and gave her a blow on the neck with his fist.... ‘Ah, I’ve no whip,’ he muttered.

I remembered the swish and fall of the whip, heard so short a time before, and shuddered.

‘Where did you put it?’ I asked my father, after a brief pause.

My father made no answer, and galloped on ahead. I overtook him. I felt that I must see his face.

‘Were you bored waiting for me?’ he muttered through his teeth.

‘A little. Where did you drop your whip?’ I asked again.

My father glanced quickly at me. ‘I didn’t drop it,’ he replied; ‘I threw it away.’ He sank into thought, and dropped his head ... and then, for the first, and almost for the last time, I saw how much tenderness and pity his stern features were capable of expressing.

He galloped on again, and this time I could not overtake him; I got home a quarter-of-an-hour after him.

‘That’s love,’ I said to myself again, as I sat at night before my writing-table, on which books and papers had begun to make their appearance; ‘that’s passion!... To think of not revolting, of bearing a blow from any one whatever ... even the dearest hand! But it seems one can, if one loves.... While I ... I imagined ...’

I had grown much older during the last month; and my love, with all its transports and sufferings, struck me myself as something small and childish and pitiful beside this other unimagined something, which I could hardly fully grasp, and which frightened me like an unknown, beautiful, but menacing face, which one strives in vain to make out clearly in the half-darkness....

A strange and fearful dream came to me that same night. I dreamed I went into a low dark room.... My father was standing with a whip in his hand, stamping with anger; in the corner crouched Zina´da, and not on her arm, but on her forehead, was a stripe of red ... while behind them both towered Byelovzorov, covered with blood; he opened his white lips, and wrathfully threatened my father.

Two months later, I entered the university; and within six months my father died of a stroke in Petersburg, where he had just moved with my mother and me. A few days before his death he received a letter from Moscow which threw him into a violent agitation.... He went to my mother to beg some favour of her: and, I was told, he positively shed tears—he, my father! On the very morning of the day when he was stricken down, he had begun a letter to me in French. ‘My son,’ he wrote to me, ‘fear the love of woman; fear that bliss, that poison....’ After his death, my mother sent a considerable sum of money to Moscow.



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