First Love

CHAPTER IX

My ‘passion’ dated from that day. I felt at that time, I recollect, something like what a man must feel on entering the service: I had ceased now to be simply a young boy; I was in love. I have said that my passion dated from that day; I might have added that my sufferings too dated from the same day. Away from Zina´da I pined; nothing was to my mind; everything went wrong with me; I spent whole days thinking intensely about her ... I pined when away,... but in her presence I was no better off. I was jealous; I was conscious of my insignificance; I was stupidly sulky or stupidly abject, and, all the same, an invincible force drew me to her, and I could not help a shudder of delight whenever I stepped through the doorway of her room. Zina´da guessed at once that I was in love with her, and indeed I never even thought of concealing it. She amused herself with my passion, made a fool of me, petted and tormented me. There is a sweetness in being the sole source, the autocratic and irresponsible cause of the greatest joy and profoundest pain to another, and I was like wax in Zina´da’s hands; though, indeed, I was not the only one in love with her. All the men who visited the house were crazy over her, and she kept them all in leading-strings at her feet. It amused her to arouse their hopes and then their fears, to turn them round her finger (she used to call it knocking their heads together), while they never dreamed of offering resistance and eagerly submitted to her. About her whole being, so full of life and beauty, there was a peculiarly bewitching mixture of slyness and carelessness, of artificiality and simplicity, of composure and frolicsomeness; about everything she did or said, about every action of hers, there clung a delicate, fine charm, in which an individual power was manifest at work. And her face was ever changing, working too; it expressed, almost at the same time, irony, dreaminess, and passion. Various emotions, delicate and quick-changing as the shadows of clouds on a sunny day of wind, chased one another continually over her lips and eyes.

Each of her adorers was necessary to her. Byelovzorov, whom she sometimes called ‘my wild beast,’ and sometimes simply ‘mine,’ would gladly have flung himself into the fire for her sake. With little confidence in his intellectual abilities and other qualities, he was for ever offering her marriage, hinting that the others were merely hanging about with no serious intention. Meidanov responded to the poetic fibres of her nature; a man of rather cold temperament, like almost all writers, he forced himself to convince her, and perhaps himself, that he adored her, sang her praises in endless verses, and read them to her with a peculiar enthusiasm, at once affected and sincere. She sympathised with him, and at the same time jeered at him a little; she had no great faith in him, and after listening to his outpourings, she would make him read Pushkin, as she said, to clear the air. Lushin, the ironical doctor, so cynical in words, knew her better than any of them, and loved her more than all, though he abused her to her face and behind her back. She could not help respecting him, but made him smart for it, and at times, with a peculiar, malignant pleasure, made him feel that he too was at her mercy. ‘I’m a flirt, I’m heartless, I’m an actress in my instincts,’ she said to him one day in my presence; ‘well and good! Give me your hand then; I’ll stick this pin in it, you’ll be ashamed of this young man’s seeing it, it will hurt you, but you’ll laugh for all that, you truthful person.’ Lushin crimsoned, turned away, bit his lips, but ended by submitting his hand. She pricked it, and he did in fact begin to laugh,... and she laughed, thrusting the pin in pretty deeply, and peeping into his eyes, which he vainly strove to keep in other directions....

I understood least of all the relations existing between Zina´da and Count Malevsky. He was handsome, clever, and adroit, but something equivocal, something false in him was apparent even to me, a boy of sixteen, and I marvelled that Zina´da did not notice it. But possibly she did notice this element of falsity really and was not repelled by it. Her irregular education, strange acquaintances and habits, the constant presence of her mother, the poverty and disorder in their house, everything, from the very liberty the young girl enjoyed, with the consciousness of her superiority to the people around her, had developed in her a sort of half-contemptuous carelessness and lack of fastidiousness. At any time anything might happen; Vonifaty might announce that there was no sugar, or some revolting scandal would come to her ears, or her guests would fall to quarrelling among themselves—she would only shake her curls, and say, ‘What does it matter?’ and care little enough about it.

But my blood, anyway, was sometimes on fire with indignation when Malevsky approached her, with a sly, fox-like action, leaned gracefully on the back of her chair, and began whispering in her ear with a self-satisfied and ingratiating little smile, while she folded her arms across her bosom, looked intently at him and smiled too, and shook her head.

‘What induces you to receive Count Malevsky?’ I asked her one day.

‘He has such pretty moustaches,’ she answered. ‘But that’s rather beyond you.’

‘You needn’t think I care for him,’ she said to me another time. ‘No; I can’t care for people I have to look down upon. I must have some one who can master me.... But, merciful heavens, I hope I may never come across any one like that! I don’t want to be caught in any one’s claws, not for anything.’

‘You’ll never be in love, then?’

‘And you? Don’t I love you?’ she said, and she flicked me on the nose with the tip of her glove.

Yes, Zina´da amused herself hugely at my expense. For three weeks I saw her every day, and what didn’t she do with me! She rarely came to see us, and I was not sorry for it; in our house she was transformed into a young lady, a young princess, and I was a little overawed by her. I was afraid of betraying myself before my mother; she had taken a great dislike to Zina´da, and kept a hostile eye upon us. My father I was not so much afraid of; he seemed not to notice me. He talked little to her, but always with special cleverness and significance. I gave up working and reading; I even gave up walking about the neighbourhood and riding my horse. Like a beetle tied by the leg, I moved continually round and round my beloved little lodge. I would gladly have stopped there altogether, it seemed ... but that was impossible. My mother scolded me, and sometimes Zina´da herself drove me away. Then I used to shut myself up in my room, or go down to the very end of the garden, and climbing into what was left of a tall stone greenhouse, now in ruins, sit for hours with my legs hanging over the wall that looked on to the road, gazing and gazing and seeing nothing. White butterflies flitted lazily by me, over the dusty nettles; a saucy sparrow settled not far off on the half crumbling red brickwork and twittered irritably, incessantly twisting and turning and preening his tail-feathers; the still mistrustful rooks cawed now and then, sitting high, high up on the bare top of a birch-tree; the sun and wind played softly on its pliant branches; the tinkle of the bells of the Don monastery floated across to me from time to time, peaceful and dreary; while I sat, gazed, listened, and was filled full of a nameless sensation in which all was contained: sadness and joy and the foretaste of the future, and the desire and dread of life. But at that time I understood nothing of it, and could have given a name to nothing of all that was passing at random within me, or should have called it all by one name—the name of Zina´da.

Zina´da continued to play cat and mouse with me. She flirted with me, and I was all agitation and rapture; then she would suddenly thrust me away, and I dared not go near her—dared not look at her.

I remember she was very cold to me for several days together; I was completely crushed, and creeping timidly to their lodge, tried to keep close to the old princess, regardless of the circumstance that she was particularly scolding and grumbling just at that time; her financial affairs had been going badly, and she had already had two ‘explanations’ with the police officials.

One day I was walking in the garden beside the familiar fence, and I caught sight of Zina´da; leaning on both arms, she was sitting on the grass, not stirring a muscle. I was about to make off cautiously, but she suddenly raised her head and beckoned me imperiously. My heart failed me; I did not understand her at first. She repeated her signal. I promptly jumped over the fence and ran joyfully up to her, but she brought me to a halt with a look, and motioned me to the path two paces from her. In confusion, not knowing what to do, I fell on my knees at the edge of the path. She was so pale, such bitter suffering, such intense weariness, was expressed in every feature of her face, that it sent a pang to my heart, and I muttered unconsciously, ‘What is the matter?’

Zina´da stretched out her head, picked a blade of grass, bit it and flung it away from her.

‘You love me very much?’ she asked at last. ‘Yes.’

I made no answer—indeed, what need was there to answer?

‘Yes,’ she repeated, looking at me as before. ‘That’s so. The same eyes,’—she went on; sank into thought, and hid her face in her hands. ‘Everything’s grown so loathsome to me,’ she whispered, ‘I would have gone to the other end of the world first—I can’t bear it, I can’t get over it.... And what is there before me!... Ah, I am wretched.... My God, how wretched I am!’

‘What for?’ I asked timidly.

Zina´da made no answer, she simply shrugged her shoulders. I remained kneeling, gazing at her with intense sadness. Every word she had uttered simply cut me to the heart. At that instant I felt I would gladly have given my life, if only she should not grieve. I gazed at her—and though I could not understand why she was wretched, I vividly pictured to myself, how in a fit of insupportable anguish, she had suddenly come out into the garden, and sunk to the earth, as though mown down by a scythe. It was all bright and green about her; the wind was whispering in the leaves of the trees, and swinging now and then a long branch of a raspberry bush over Zina´da’s head. There was a sound of the cooing of doves, and the bees hummed, flying low over the scanty grass, Overhead the sun was radiantly blue—while I was so sorrowful....

‘Read me some poetry,’ said Zina´da in an undertone, and she propped herself on her elbow; ‘I like your reading poetry. You read it in sing-song, but that’s no matter, that comes of being young. Read me “On the Hills of Georgia.” Only sit down first.’

I sat down and read ‘On the Hills of Georgia.’

‘“That the heart cannot choose but love,”’ repeated Zina´da. ‘That’s where poetry’s so fine; it tells us what is not, and what’s not only better than what is, but much more like the truth, “cannot choose but love,”—it might want not to, but it can’t help it.’ She was silent again, then all at once she started and got up. ‘Come along. Meidanov’s indoors with mamma, he brought me his poem, but I deserted him. His feelings are hurt too now ... I can’t help it! you’ll understand it all some day ... only don’t be angry with me!’

Zina´da hurriedly pressed my hand and ran on ahead. We went back into the lodge. Meidanov set to reading us his ‘Manslayer,’ which had just appeared in print, but I did not hear him. He screamed and drawled his four-foot iambic lines, the alternating rhythms jingled like little bells, noisy and meaningless, while I still watched Zina´da and tried to take in the import of her last words.

‘Perchance some unknown rival
Has surprised and mastered thee?’

Meidanov bawled suddenly through his nose—and my eyes and Zina´da’s met. She looked down and faintly blushed. I saw her blush, and grew cold with terror. I had been jealous before, but only at that instant the idea of her being in love flashed upon my mind. ‘Good God! she is in love!’



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