The party had long ago broken up. The clock struck half-past twelve. There was left in the room only the master of the house and Sergei Nikolaevitch and Vladimir Petrovitch.
The master of the house rang and ordered the remains of the supper to be cleared away. “And so it’s settled,” he observed, sitting back farther in his easy-chair and lighting a cigar; “each of us is to tell the story of his first love. It’s your turn, Sergei Nikolaevitch.”
Sergei Nikolaevitch, a round little man with a plump, light-complexioned face, gazed first at the master of the house, then raised his eyes to the ceiling. “I had no first love,” he said at last; “I began with the second.”
“How was that?”
“It’s very simple. I was eighteen when I had my first flirtation with a charming young lady, but I courted her just as though it were nothing new to me; just as I courted others later on. To speak accurately, the first and last time I was in love was with my nurse when I was six years old; but that’s in the remote past. The details of our relations have slipped out of my memory, and even if I remembered them, whom could they interest?”
“Then how’s it to be?” began the master of the house. “There was nothing much of interest about my first love either; I never fell in love with any one till I met Anna Nikolaevna, now my wife, — and everything went as smoothly as possible with us; our parents arranged the match, we were very soon in love with each other, and got married without loss of time. My story can be told in a couple of words. I must confess, gentlemen, in bringing up the subject of first love, I reckoned upon you, I won’t say old, but no longer young, bachelors. Can’t you enliven us with something, Vladimir Petrovitch?”
“My first love, certainly, was not quite an ordinary one,” responded, with some reluctance, Vladimir Petrovitch, a man of forty, with black hair turning grey.
“Ah!” said the master of the house and Sergei Nikolaevitch with one voice: “So much the better…. Tell us about it.”
“If you wish it … or no; I won’t tell the story; I’m no hand at telling a story; I make it dry and brief, or spun out and affected. If you’ll allow me, I’ll write out all I remember and read it you.”
His friends at first would not agree, but Vladimir Petrovitch insisted on his own way. A fortnight later they were together again, and Vladimir Petrovitch kept his word.
His manuscript contained the following story: —
I was sixteen then. It happened in the summer of 1833.
I lived in Moscow with my parents. They had taken a country house for the summer near the Kalouga gate, facing the Neskutchny gardens. I was preparing for the university, but did not work much and was in no hurry.
No one interfered with my freedom. I did what I liked, especially after parting with my last tutor, a Frenchman who had never been able to get used to the idea that he had fallen “like a bomb” (comme une bombe) into Russia, and would lie sluggishly in bed with an expression of exasperation on his face for days together. My father treated me with careless kindness; my mother scarcely noticed me, though she had no children except me; other cares completely absorbed her. My father, a man still young and very handsome, had married her from mercenary considerations; she was ten years older than he. My mother led a melancholy life; she was for ever agitated, jealous and angry, but not in my father’s presence; she was very much afraid of him, and he was severe, cold, and distant in his behaviour…. I have never seen a man more elaborately serene, self-confident, and commanding.
I shall never forget the first weeks I spent at the country house. The weather was magnificent; we left town on the 9th of May, on St. Nicholas’s day. I used to walk about in our garden, in the Neskutchny gardens, and beyond the town gates; I would take some book with me — Keidanov’s Course, for instance — but I rarely looked into it, and more often than anything declaimed verses aloud; I knew a great deal of poetry by heart; my blood was in a ferment and my heart ached — so sweetly and absurdly; I was all hope and anticipation, was a little frightened of something, and full of wonder at everything, and was on the tiptoe of expectation; my imagination played continually, fluttering rapidly about the same fancies, like martins about a bell-tower at dawn; I dreamed, was sad, even wept; but through the tears and through the sadness, inspired by a musical verse, or the beauty of evening, shot up like grass in spring the delicious sense of youth and effervescent life.
I had a horse to ride; I used to saddle it myself and set off alone for long rides, break into a rapid gallop and fancy myself a knight at a tournament. How gaily the wind whistled in my ears! or turning my face towards the sky, I would absorb its shining radiance and blue into my soul, that opened wide to welcome it.
I remember that at that time the image of woman, the vision of love, scarcely ever arose in definite shape in my brain; but in all I thought, in all I felt, lay hidden a half-conscious, shamefaced presentiment of something new, unutterably sweet, feminine….
This presentiment, this expectation, permeated my whole being; I breathed in it, it coursed through my veins with every drop of blood … it was destined to be soon fulfilled.
The place, where we settled for the summer, consisted of a wooden manor-house with columns and two small lodges; in the lodge on the left there was a tiny factory for the manufacture of cheap wall-papers…. I had more than once strolled that way to look at about a dozen thin and dishevelled boys with greasy smocks and worn faces, who were perpetually jumping on to wooden levers, that pressed down the square blocks of the press, and so by the weight of their feeble bodies struck off the variegated patterns of the wall-papers. The lodge on the right stood empty, and was to let. One day — three weeks after the 9th of May — the blinds in the windows of this lodge were drawn up, women’s faces appeared at them — some family had installed themselves in it. I remember the same day at dinner, my mother inquired of the butler who were our new neighbours, and hearing the name of the Princess Zasyekin, first observed with some respect, “Ah! a princess!” … and then added, “A poor one, I suppose?”
“They arrived in three hired flies,” the butler remarked deferentially, as he handed a dish: “they don’t keep their own carriage, and the furniture’s of the poorest.”
“Ah,” replied my mother, “so much the better.”
My father gave her a chilly glance; she was silent.
Certainly the Princess Zasyekin could not be a rich woman; the lodge she had taken was so dilapidated and small and low-pitched that people, even moderately well-off in the world, would hardly have consented to occupy it. At the time, however, all this went in at one ear and out at the other. The princely title had very little effect on me; I had just been reading Schiller’s Robbers.
I was in the habit of wandering about our garden every evening on the look-out for rooks. I had long cherished a hatred for those wary, sly, and rapacious birds. On the day of which I have been speaking, I went as usual into the garden, and after patrolling all the walks without success (the rooks knew me, and merely cawed spasmodically at a distance), I chanced to go close to the low fence which separated our domain from the narrow strip of garden stretching beyond the lodge to the right, and belonging to it. I was walking along, my eyes on the ground. Suddenly I heard a voice; I looked across the fence, and was thunder-struck…. I was confronted with a curious spectacle.
A few paces from me on the grass between the green raspberry bushes stood a tall slender girl in a striped pink dress, with a white kerchief on her head; four young men were close round her, and she was slapping them by turns on the forehead with those small grey flowers, the name of which I don’t know, though they are well known to children; the flowers form little bags, and burst open with a pop when you strike them against anything hard. The young men presented their foreheads so eagerly, and in the gestures of the girl (I saw her in profile), there was something so fascinating, imperious, caressing, mocking, and charming, that I almost cried out with admiration and delight, and would, I thought, have given everything in the world on the spot only to have had those exquisite fingers strike me on the forehead. My gun slipped on to the grass, I forgot everything, I devoured with my eyes the graceful shape and neck and lovely arms and the slightly disordered fair hair under the white kerchief, and the half-closed clever eye, and the eyelashes and the soft cheek beneath them….
“Young man, hey, young man,” said a voice suddenly near me: “is it quite permissible to stare so at unknown young ladies?”
I started, I was struck dumb…. Near me, the other side of the fence, stood a man with close-cropped black hair, looking ironically at me. At the same instant the girl too turned towards me…. I caught sight of big grey eyes in a bright mobile face, and the whole face suddenly quivered and laughed, there was a flash of white teeth, a droll lifting of the eyebrows…. I crimsoned, picked up my gun from the ground, and pursued by a musical but not ill-natured laugh, fled to my own room, flung myself on the bed, and hid my face in my hands. My heart was fairly leaping; I was greatly ashamed and overjoyed; I felt an excitement I had never known before.
After a rest, I brushed my hair, washed, and went downstairs to tea. The image of the young girl floated before me, my heart was no longer leaping, but was full of a sort of sweet oppression.
“What’s the matter?” my father asked me all at once: “have you killed a rook?”
I was on the point of telling him all about it, but I checked myself, and merely smiled to myself. As I was going to bed, I rotated — I don’t know why — three times on one leg, pomaded my hair, got into bed, and slept like a top all night. Before morning I woke up for an instant, raised my head, looked round me in ecstasy, and fell asleep again.
“How can I make their acquaintance?” was my first thought when I waked in the morning. I went out in the garden before morning tea, but I did not go too near the fence, and saw no one. After drinking tea, I walked several times up and down the street before the house, and looked into the windows from a distance…. I fancied her face at a curtain, and I hurried away in alarm.
“I must make her acquaintance, though,” I thought, pacing distractedly about the sandy plain that stretches before Neskutchny park … “but how, that is the question.” I recalled the minutest details of our meeting yesterday; I had for some reason or other a particularly vivid recollection of how she had laughed at me…. But while I racked my brains, and made various plans, fate had already provided for me.
In my absence my mother had received from her new neighbour a letter on grey paper, sealed with brown wax, such as is only used in notices from the post-office or on the corks of bottles of cheap wine. In this letter, which was written in illiterate language and in a slovenly hand, the princess begged my mother to use her powerful influence in her behalf; my mother, in the words of the princess, was very intimate with persons of high position, upon whom her fortunes and her children’s fortunes depended, as she had some very important business in hand. “I address myself to you,” she wrote, “as one gentlewoman to another gentlewoman, and for that reason am glad to avail myself of the opportunity.” Concluding, she begged my mother’s permission to call upon her. I found my mother in an unpleasant state of indecision; my father was not at home, and she had no one of whom to ask advice. Not to answer a gentlewoman, and a princess into the bargain, was impossible. But my mother was in a difficulty as to how to answer her. To write a note in French struck her as unsuitable, and Russian spelling was not a strong point with my mother herself, and she was aware of it, and did not care to expose herself. She was overjoyed when I made my appearance, and at once told me to go round to the princess’s, and to explain to her by word of mouth that my mother would always be glad to do her excellency any service within her powers, and begged her to come to see her at one o’clock. This unexpectedly rapid fulfilment of my secret desires both delighted and appalled me. I made no sign, however, of the perturbation which came over me, and as a preliminary step went to my own room to put on a new necktie and tail coat; at home I still wore short jackets and lay-down collars, much as I abominated them.
In the narrow and untidy passage of the lodge, which I entered with an involuntary tremor in all my limbs, I was met by an old grey-headed servant with a dark copper-coloured face, surly little pig’s eyes, and such deep furrows on his forehead and temples as I had never beheld in my life. He was carrying a plate containing the spine of a herring that had been gnawed at; and shutting the door that led into the room with his foot, he jerked out, “What do you want?”
“Is the Princess Zasyekin at home?” I inquired.
“Vonifaty!” a jarring female voice screamed from within.
The man without a word turned his back on me, exhibiting as he did so the extremely threadbare hindpart of his livery with a solitary reddish heraldic button on it; he put the plate down on the floor, and went away.
“Did you go to the police station?” the same female voice called again. The man muttered something in reply. “Eh…. Has some one come?” I heard again…. “The young gentleman from next door. Ask him in, then.”
“Will you step into the drawing-room?” said the servant, making his appearance once more, and picking up the plate from the floor. I mastered my emotions, and went into the drawing-room.
I found myself in a small and not over clean apartment, containing some poor furniture that looked as if it had been hurriedly set down where it stood. At the window in an easy-chair with a broken arm was sitting a woman of fifty, bareheaded and ugly, in an old green dress, and a striped worsted wrap about her neck. Her small black eyes fixed me like pins.
I went up to her and bowed.
“I have the honour of addressing the Princess Zasyekin?”
“I am the Princess Zasyekin; and you are the son of Mr. V.?”
“Yes. I have come to you with a message from my mother.”
“Sit down, please. Vonifaty, where are my keys, have you seen them?”
I communicated to Madame Zasyekin my mother’s reply to her note. She heard me out, drumming with her fat red fingers on the window-pane, and when I had finished, she stared at me once more.