The Kiss and Other Stories/Zinotchka

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For other English-language translations of this work, see Zinotchka (Chekhov).


ZINOTCHKA

On beds of new-mown hay in a peasant's cabin a party of sportsmen settled down for the night. The moon looked through the window; outside, a concertina moaned plaintively. The hay exhaled a heavy, irritating smell. The sportsmen spoke of dogs, of women, of first love, of snipe. When they had picked to pieces all the women they knew and told a hundred stories, the stoutest of the party, who looked in the darkness like a haycock and spoke in the thick voice of a staff-officer, yawned audibly and remarked —

“There is nothing so wonderful, after all, in being loved; women exist only for that — to love our brother. But tell me, can any of you boast that he has been really hated — hated passionately, hated as devils hate? Has any one ever witnessed an ecstasy of detestation? Eh?”

There was no answer.

“I fancy not,” resumed the staff-officer's bass. “I alone have had that experience. I have been hated by a girl, and a pretty girl; and, in my own person, studied all the symptoms of first hate. I say ‘first,’ gentlemen, because it was the converse of first love. But, as a fact, I gained my queer experience at an age when I had no definite ideas about either love or hatred. I was only eight years old. But that is not the point; the girl herself is the centre of the story. However. . . . Listen!

“One fine summer evening before sunset, with my governess Zinotchka, an entrancing, romantic creature just out of school, I sat in the nui'sery at lessons. Zinotchka looked abstractedly out of the window and said to me —

“‘Yes, we inhale oxygen. Now tell me, Petya, what do we exhale?’

“‘Carbonic acid gas,’ I answered, also looking out of the window.

“‘Quite right,’ said Zinotchka. ‘The plants, on the other hand, inhale carbonic acid and exhale oxygen. Carbonic acid gas is contained in seltzer water and in samovar smoke. ... It is a very dangerous gas. Near Naples there is a so-called Dog's Cavern full of it; if you put a dog in this cavern it is quickly suffocated.’

“This unhappy cavern near Naples was a physical phenomenon which no governess ever forgot. Zinotchka always impressed on me strongly the value of natural science, though she knew nothing about chemistry save the fate of these dogs.

“She told me to repeat the facts. I repraited them; whereupon she asked me, ‘What is the horizon?’ I answered. While we were busy with the horizon my father was in the yard preparing a shooting excursion. The dogs whined, the horses paced impatiently; the servants filled the tarantass with bags of food — all sorts of good things! Alongside the tarantass waited our two-seated droschky, which was to take my mother and sisters on a birthday visit to Ivanitsky's. All were going somewhere, except myself, and my elder brother, who complained of a bad toothache. You can imagine my envy and boredom.

“‘So . . . what is it we inhale?’ asked Zinotchka, looking out of the window.

“‘Oxygen.’

“‘Yes; and the horizon is the place where, as it seems to us, the earth is joined to the sky.’

“But at this point the tarantass drove away, and after it the droschky. I looked at Zinotchka and saw that she took from her pocket a piece of paper, crushed it nervously, and pressed it to her forehead. When she had done this she started and looked at the clock.

“‘So . . . remember,’ she resumed. ‘Near Naples there is a so-called Dog's Cavern . . .’ — here she again looked at the clock and continued — ‘where, as it seems to us, the earth is joined to the sky.’

"Poor Zinotchka walked up and down the room in intense agitation and continued to look at the clock. But my lessons were due to last another half-hour.

“‘Take your arithmetic,’ she said, breathing heavily, and turning over the pages with a trembling hand. ‘Try and solve Problem No. 325. I shall be back immediately.’

“Zinotchka left the room. I heard her fluttering down the stairs, and soon saw through the window her blue dress flashing through the yard and vanishing at the garden gate. Her feverish movements, the redness of her cheeks, her intense agitation aroused my curiosity. Where had she run to, and why? Being intelligent beyond my years, I reasoned it out and understood everything. Taking advantage of my rigid parents' absence, she had gone to plunder the raspberry bushes or, perhaps, to pick wild cherries. If that was so, then I, too, devil take me! would go and pick wild cherries. I threw my lesson-book away and ran into the garden. At the cherry-trees, which I made for first, Zinotchka was not to be seen. Having ignored the raspberries, the gooseberries, and passed our watchman's hut, she was making her way to the pond, pale as death, and starting at every sound. I stole after her, undiscovered, and saw, gentlemen, a most amazing sight! Near the pond, between the trunks of two old willows, stood my elder brother Sasha without the least sign of toothache about him. He looked at appi-oaching Zinotchka, and his whole face, like the sun, was lighted with rapturous delight. And Zinotchka, as if she were being driven into the Dog's Cavern to inhale carbonic acid gas, walked towards him slowly, breathing with difficulty, and hanging back her head. Everything showed that this was the first such meeting of her life. In a moment she stood before my brother, and for a few seconds they looked silently at one another as if they could not credit their own eyes. . . . And then some inexplicable force seemed to push Zinotchka from behind; she laid her hand on Sasha's shoulder and pressed her head against his waistcoat. My brave Sasha smiled, muttered something inaudible, and with the awkwardness of a man very much in love put both his hands to Zinotchka's face. And then, gentlemen, wonders! . . . The hill behind which the sun was sinking, the two willow-trees, the green banks, the sky — all of these were imaged in the pond. Silence . . . you can imagine it! Over the sedges swept a million gold butterflies with long whiskers, beyond the garden a shepherd drove his flock! It was a picture for the gods!

“But of all that I saw, I understood only one thing. Sasha was kissing Zinotchka! It was improper! If mother knew. They would hear more of it. With a feeling of shame I returned to the nursery, and witnessed no more of the tryst. Being intelligent beyond my years, I bent over my lessonbooks, thought, and reasoned it out. And my face grew radiant with a smile of victory. On the one hand, it was profitable to possess another's secret; on the other, it was flattering that persons in authority, like Sasha and Zinotchka, had been detected in ignorance of the social proprieties. Now they had fallen into my power; and their peace henceforth depended only on my generosity. They would know that soon!

“When bedtime came, Zinotchka as usual came to the nursery to make sure that I had said my prayers and had not got into bed in my clothes. I looked at her pretty, radiant face, and grinned. The secret rent me asunder, and demanded an outlet. I began with hints, and revelled in the eflect.

“‘Aha, I know!’ I began. ‘Aha!’

“‘What do you know?’

“‘Aha ! I saw you kissing Sasha behind the willows. I went after you, and watched!’

“Zinotchka started and turned a fiery red. Struck dumb by my words, she dropped into a chair on which were a glass of water and a candlestick.

“‘I saw you and Sasha . . . kissing . . .’ I repeated, hopping, and enjoying her confusion. ‘Aha! Wait till I tell mother.’

“At first Zinotchka looked at me earnestly and in terror. Then, convinced that I really did know everything, she seized my hand despairingly, and whispered tremulously —

“‘Petya, that is mean. . . . I implore you! For the love of God! be a man . . . don't say anything. . . . Honest boys do not spy. It is mean. I implore you!’

“Poor Zinotchka feared my mother as fire; my mother was a virtuous and high-principled lady. That was one reason for her fright. The second, no doubt, was that my grinning snout seemed a profanation of her first, pure, romantic love. You can imagine her feelings! Through my fault, she must have lain awake all night, for she appeared at breakfast next morning with dark blue circles round her eyes. . . . When after breakfast I came across Sasha I could not curb the temptation to grin and boast.

“‘Aha! I know. I saw you kissing Mademoiselle Zina!’

“Sasha looked at me and said —

“‘You are an idiot!’

“He was harder to frighten than Zinotchka, and the blow failed. That disappointed me. That Sasha was so bold was proof that he didn't believe I had seen the kiss. But, wait, I consoled myself; I could prove it. At lessons that morning Zinotchka kept her eyes turned away, and stammered constantly.

“She showed no fear ; but tried to placate me, gave me full marks for everything, and never once complained to my father of my tricks. Being intelligent beyond my years, I exploited her secret to my profit; I learned no lessons, entered the class-room walking on my hands, and was grossly impertinent — in short, if I had continued in the same spirit to this day, I should be an expert black-mailer. But only a week passed. The secret irritated and tormented me — it was a splinter in my soul. Heedless of results, I could no longer combat the impulse to let it out, and enjoy the effect. One day at dinner when there were many visitors I grinned sheepishly, looked cunningly at Zinotchka, and began —

“‘Aha! I know. . . . I saw . . .’

“‘What did you see?’ asked my mother.

“Again I looked cunningly at Zinotchka, and then Sasha. You should have seen how Zinotchka flared up, and Sasha's ferocious eyes! I bit my tongue and said no more. Zinotchka turned slowly pale, ground her teeth, and ate nothing. During preparation, that evening, I noticed that a sudden change had come over Zinotchka. Her face was severer, colder, marble-like; and her eyes had a strange expression. I give you my word that even in dogs when they tear to pieces a wolf I have never seen such devouring, annihilating eyes. I was soon to learn what the expression meant. In the midst of a lesson Zinotchka ground her teeth and hissed in my face —

“‘I detest you! If you only knew, wretch, disgusting animal, how I hate you ; how I hate your cropped head, your infamous ass's ears!’

“But she took fright immediately and continued —

“‘I did not mean that for you. I was only repeating a part from a play. . . .’

“After that, gentlemen, she came to my bed every night and looked me steadfastly in the face. She hated me passionately. Yet she could not live without me. It somehow seemed a need for her to watch my detestable face. And then I remember one delightful summer evening. There was a smell of hay, stillness, and so on. The moon shone. I was walking down a garden path, thinking of cherry jam. Suddenly up to me came pale and pretty Zinotchka, seized my arm, and, panting, avowed her feelings.

“‘Oh, how I hate you! I have never wished any one such evil as I wish you! I want you to understand that!’

“You can imagine it! The moon, the pale face exhaling passion, the stillness! And, little pig that I was, I revelled in it. I listened to Zinotchka, looked at her eyes. ... At first it was delightful, because it was new. But in a moment I was overtaken by terror; I screamed loudly, and ran into the house.

“I decided that the only thing was to complain to my mother. And I complained, and told her how I had seen Sasha and Zinotchka kissing. I was an idiot, and did not foresee the result; otherwise I should have held my tongue. . . . When my mother heard me she flamed with indignation, and said —

"'It is not your business to talk of such things. . . You are too young. But what an example to children!’

“My mother was not only virtuous, she was tactful too. She did her best to avoid a scandal; and rid herself of Zinotchka not at once, but gradually, systematically, as people rid themselves of respectable but tiresome visitors. I remember that when Zinotchka drove away her last glance was directed to the window at which I sat, and I assure you that to this day I remember that look.

“Not long afterwards Zinotchka was my brother's wife. That is the Zinaida Nikolaievna whom you all know. I never met her again until I was a junker. It was hard for her to recognise in the moustached officer the detested Petya — still, her manner to me was not quite that of a relative. . . And even to-day, despite my good-humoured bald head, my peaceful figure, and meek looks, Zinotchka always looks at me a little askance, and seems out of sorts when I visit my brother. . . It is plain that first hate is not as quickly forgotten as first love. . . By Jove! The cocks are crowing already. Good night!”