THE dog was barking excitedly outside. And Ananyev the engineer, his assistant called Von Schtenberg, and I went out of the hut to see at whom it was barking. I was the visitor, and might have remained indoors, but I must confess my head was a little dizzy from the wine I had drunk, and I was glad to get a breath of fresh air.
“There is nobody here,” said Ananyev when we went out. “Why are you telling stories, Azorka? You fool!”
There was not a soul in sight.
“The fool,” Azorka, a black house-dog, probably conscious of his guilt in barking for nothing and anxious to propitiate us, approached us, diffidently wagging his tail. The engineer bent down and touched him between his ears.
“Why are you barking for nothing, creature?” he said in the tone in which good-natured people talk to children and dogs. “Have you had a bad dream or what? Here, doctor, let me commend to your attention,” he said, turning to me, “a wonderfully nervous subject! Would you believe it, he can’t endure solitude — he is always having terrible dreams and suffering from nightmares; and when you shout at him he has something like an attack of hysterics.”
“Yes, a dog of refined feelings,” the student chimed in.
Azorka must have understood that the conversation was concerning him. He turned his head upwards and grinned plaintively, as though to say, “Yes, at times I suffer unbearably, but please excuse it!”
It was an August night, there were stars, but it was dark. Owing to the fact that I had never in my life been in such exceptional surroundings, as I had chanced to come into now, the starry night seemed to me gloomy, inhospitable, and darker than it was in reality. I was on a railway line which was still in process of construction. The high, half-finished embankment, the mounds of sand, clay, and rubble, the holes, the wheel-barrows standing here and there, the flat tops of the mud huts in which the workmen lived — all this muddle, coloured to one tint by the darkness, gave the earth a strange, wild aspect that suggested the times of chaos. There was so little order in all that lay before me that it was somehow strange in the midst of the hideously excavated, grotesque-looking earth to see the silhouettes of human beings and the slender telegraph posts. Both spoiled the ensemble of the picture, and seemed to belong to a different world. It was still, and the only sound came from the telegraph wire droning its wearisome refrain somewhere very high above our heads.
We climbed up on the embankment and from its height looked down upon the earth. A hundred yards away where the pits, holes, and mounds melted into the darkness of the night, a dim light was twinkling. Beyond it gleamed another light, beyond that a third, then a hundred paces away two red eyes glowed side by side — probably the windows of some hut — and a long series of such lights, growing continually closer and dimmer, stretched along the line to the very horizon, then turned in a semicircle to the left and disappeared in the darkness of the distance. The lights were motionless. There seemed to be something in common between them and the stillness of the night and the disconsolate song of the telegraph wire. It seemed as though some weighty secret were buried under the embankment and only the lights, the night, and the wires knew of it.
“How glorious, O Lord!” sighed Ananyev; “such space and beauty that one can’t tear oneself away! And what an embankment! It’s not an embankment, my dear fellow, but a regular Mont Blanc. It’s costing millions . . . .”
Going into ecstasies over the lights and the embankment that was costing millions, intoxicated by the wine and his sentimental mood, the engineer slapped Von Schtenberg on the shoulder and went on in a jocose tone:
“Well, Mihail Mihailitch, lost in reveries? No doubt it is pleasant to look at the work of one’s own hands, eh? Last year this very spot was bare steppe, not a sight of human life, and now look: life . . . civilisation . . . And how splendid it all is, upon my soul! You and I are building a railway, and after we are gone, in another century or two, good men will build a factory, a school, a hospital, and things will begin to move! Eh!”
The student stood motionless with his hands thrust in his pockets, and did not take his eyes off the lights. He was not listening to the engineer, but was thinking, and was apparently in the mood in which one does not want to speak or to listen. After a prolonged silence he turned to me and said quietly:
“Do you know what those endless lights are like? They make me think of something long dead, that lived thousands of years ago, something like the camps of the Amalekites or the Philistines. It is as though some people of the Old Testament had pitched their camp and were waiting for morning to fight with Saul or David. All that is wanting to complete the illusion is the blare of trumpets and sentries calling to one another in some Ethiopian language.”
And, as though of design, the wind fluttered over the line and brought a sound like the clank of weapons. A silence followed. I don’t know what the engineer and the student were thinking of, but it seemed to me already that I actually saw before me something long dead and even heard the sentry talking in an unknown tongue. My imagination hastened to picture the tents, the strange people, their clothes, their armour.
“Yes,” muttered the student pensively, “once Philistines and Amalekites were living in this world, making wars, playing their part, and now no trace of them remains. So it will be with us. Now we are making a railway, are standing here philosophising, but two thousand years will pass — and of this embankment and of all those men, asleep after their hard work, not one grain of dust will remain. In reality, it’s awful!”
“You must drop those thoughts . . .” said the engineer gravely and admonishingly.
“Because. . . . Thoughts like that are for the end of life, not for the beginning of it. You are too young for them.”
“Why so?” repeated the student.
“All these thoughts of the transitoriness, the insignificance and the aimlessness of life, of the inevitability of death, of the shadows of the grave, and so on, all such lofty thoughts, I tell you, my dear fellow, are good and natural in old age when they come as the product of years of inner travail, and are won by suffering and really are intellectual riches; for a youthful brain on the threshold of real life they are simply a calamity! A calamity!” Ananyev repeated with a wave of his hand. “To my mind it is better at your age to have no head on your shoulders at all than to think on these lines. I am speaking seriously, Baron. And I have been meaning to speak to you about it for a long time, for I noticed from the very first day of our acquaintance your partiality for these damnable ideas!”
“Good gracious, why are they damnable?” the student asked with a smile, and from his voice and his face I could see that he asked the question from simple politeness, and that the discussion raised by the engineer did not interest him in the least.
I could hardly keep my eyes open. I was dreaming that immediately after our walk we should wish each other good-night and go to bed, but my dream was not quickly realised. When we had returned to the hut the engineer put away the empty bottles and took out of a large wicker hamper two full ones, and uncorking them, sat down to his work-table with the evident intention of going on drinking, talking, and working. Sipping a little from his glass, he made pencil notes on some plans and went on pointing out to the student that the latter’s way of thinking was not what it should be. The student sat beside him checking accounts and saying nothing. He, like me, had no inclination to speak or to listen. That I might not interfere with their work, I sat away from the table on the engineer’s crooked-legged travelling bedstead, feeling bored and expecting every moment that they would suggest I should go to bed. It was going on for one o’clock.
Having nothing to do, I watched my new acquaintances. I had never seen Ananyev or the student before. I had only made their acquaintance on the night I have described. Late in the evening I was returning on horseback from a fair to the house of a landowner with whom I was staying, had got on the wrong road in the dark and lost my way. Going round and round by the railway line and seeing how dark the night was becoming, I thought of the “barefoot railway roughs,” who lie in wait for travellers on foot and on horseback, was frightened, and knocked at the first hut I came to. There I was cordially received by Ananyev and the student. As is usually the case with strangers casually brought together, we quickly became acquainted, grew friendly and at first over the tea and afterward over the wine, began to feel as though we had known each other for years. At the end of an hour or so, I knew who they were and how fate had brought them from town to the far-away steppe; and they knew who I was, what my occupation and my way of thinking.
Nikolay Anastasyevitch Ananyev, the engineer, was a broad-shouldered, thick-set man, and, judging from his appearance, he had, like Othello, begun the “descent into the vale of years,” and was growing rather too stout. He was just at that stage which old match-making women mean when they speak of “a man in the prime of his age,” that is, he was neither young nor old, was fond of good fare, good liquor, and praising the past, panted a little as he walked, snored loudly when he was asleep, and in his manner with those surrounding him displayed that calm imperturbable good humour which is always acquired by decent people by the time they have reached the grade of a staff officer and begun to grow stout. His hair and beard were far from being grey, but already, with a condescension of which he was unconscious, he addressed young men as “my dear boy” and felt himself entitled to lecture them good-humouredly about their way of thinking. His movements and his voice were calm, smooth, and self-confident, as they are in a man who is thoroughly well aware that he has got his feet firmly planted on the right road, that he has definite work, a secure living, a settled outlook. . . . His sunburnt, thicknosed face and muscular neck seemed to say: “I am well fed, healthy, satisfied with myself, and the time will come when you young people too, will be wellfed, healthy, and satisfied with yourselves . . . .” He was dressed in a cotton shirt with the collar awry and in full linen trousers thrust into his high boots. From certain trifles, as for instance, from his coloured worsted girdle, his embroidered collar, and the patch on his elbow, I was able to guess that he was married and in all probability tenderly loved by his wife.
Baron Von Schtenberg, a student of the Institute of Transport, was a young man of about three or four and twenty. Only his fair hair and scanty beard, and, perhaps, a certain coarseness and frigidity in his features showed traces of his descent from Barons of the Baltic provinces; everything else — his name, Mihail Mihailovitch, his religion, his ideas, his manners, and the expression of his face were purely Russian. Wearing, like Ananyev, a cotton shirt and high boots, with his round shoulders, his hair left uncut, and his sunburnt face, he did not look like a student or a Baron, but like an ordinary Russian workman. His words and gestures were few, he drank reluctantly without relish, checked the accounts mechanically, and seemed all the while to be thinking of something else. His movements and voice were calm, and smooth too, but his calmness was of a different kind from the engineer’s. His sunburnt, slightly ironical, dreamy face, his eyes which looked up from under his brows, and his whole figure were expressive of spiritual stagnation — mental sloth. He looked as though it did not matter to him in the least whether the light were burning before him or not, whether the wine were nice or nasty, and whether the accounts he was checking were correct or not. . . . And on his intelligent, calm face I read: “I don’t see so far any good in definite work, a secure living, and a settled outlook. It’s all nonsense. I was in Petersburg, now I am sitting here in this hut, in the autumn I shall go back to Petersburg, then in the spring here again. . . . What sense there is in all that I don’t know, and no one knows. . . . And so it’s no use talking about it . . . .”
He listened to the engineer without interest, with the condescending indifference with which cadets in the senior classes listen to an effusive and good-natured old attendant. It seemed as though there were nothing new to him in what the engineer said, and that if he had not himself been too lazy to talk, he would have said something newer and cleverer. Meanwhile Ananyev would not desist. He had by now laid aside his good-humoured, jocose tone and spoke seriously, even with a fervour which was quite out of keeping with his expression of calmness. Apparently he had no distaste for abstract subjects, was fond of them, indeed, but had neither skill nor practice in the handling of them. And this lack of practice was so pronounced in his talk that I did not always grasp his meaning at once.
“I hate those ideas with all my heart!” he said, “I was infected by them myself in my youth, I have not quite got rid of them even now, and I tell you — perhaps because I am stupid and such thoughts were not the right food for my mind — they did me nothing but harm. That’s easy to understand! Thoughts of the aimlessness of life, of the insignificance and transitoriness of the visible world, Solomon’s ‘vanity of vanities’ have been, and are to this day, the highest and final stage in the realm of thought. The thinker reaches that stage and — comes to a halt! There is nowhere further to go. The activity of the normal brain is completed with this, and that is natural and in the order of things. Our misfortune is that we begin thinking at that end. What normal people end with we begin with. From the first start, as soon as the brain begins working independently, we mount to the very topmost, final step and refuse to know anything about the steps below.”
“What harm is there in that?” said the student.
“But you must understand that it’s abnormal,” shouted Ananyev, looking at him almost wrathfully. “If we find means of mounting to the topmost step without the help of the lower ones, then the whole long ladder, that is the whole of life, with its colours, sounds, and thoughts, loses all meaning for us. That at your age such reflections are harmful and absurd, you can see from every step of your rational independent life. Let us suppose you sit down this minute to read Darwin or Shakespeare, you have scarcely read a page before the poison shows itself; and your long life, and Shakespeare, and Darwin, seem to you nonsense, absurdity, because you know you will die, that Shakespeare and Darwin have died too, that their thoughts have not saved them, nor the earth, nor you, and that if life is deprived of meaning in that way, all science, poetry, and exalted thoughts seem only useless diversions, the idle playthings of grown up people; and you leave off reading at the second page. Now, let us suppose that people come to you as an intelligent man and ask your opinion about war, for instance: whether it is desirable, whether it is morally justifiable or not. In answer to that terrible question you merely shrug your shoulders and confine yourself to some commonplace, because for you, with your way of thinking, it makes absolutely no difference whether hundreds of thousands of people die a violent death, or a natural one: the results are the same — ashes and oblivion. You and I are building a railway line. What’s the use, one may ask, of our worrying our heads, inventing, rising above the hackneyed thing, feeling for the workmen, stealing or not stealing, when we know that this railway line will turn to dust within two thousand years, and so on, and so on. . . . You must admit that with such a disastrous way of looking at things there can be no progress, no science, no art, nor even thought itself. We fancy that we are cleverer than the crowd, and than Shakespeare. In reality our thinking leads to nothing because we have no inclination to go down to the lower steps and there is nowhere higher to go, so our brain stands at the freezing point — neither up nor down; I was in bondage to these ideas for six years, and by all that is holy, I never read a sensible book all that time, did not gain a ha’porth of wisdom, and did not raise my moral standard an inch. Was not that disastrous? Moreover, besides being corrupted ourselves, we bring poison into the lives of those surrounding us. It would be all right if, with our pessimism, we renounced life, went to live in a cave, or made haste to die, but, as it is, in obedience to the universal law, we live, feel, love women, bring up children, construct railways!”
“Our thoughts make no one hot or cold,” the student said reluctantly.
“Ah! there you are again! — do stop it! You have not yet had a good sniff at life. But when you have lived as long as I have you will know a thing or two! Our theory of life is not so innocent as you suppose. In practical life, in contact with human beings, it leads to nothing but horrors and follies. It has been my lot to pass through experiences which I would not wish a wicked Tatar to endure.”
“For instance?” I asked.
“For instance?” repeated the engineer.
He thought a minute, smiled and said:
“For instance, take this example. More correctly, it is not an example, but a regular drama, with a plot and a dénouement. An excellent lesson! Ah, what a lesson!”
He poured out wine for himself and us, emptied his glass, stroked his broad chest with his open hands, and went on, addressing himself more to me than to the student.
“It was in the year 187 — soon after the war, and when I had just left the University. I was going to the Caucasus, and on the way stopped for five days in the seaside town of N. I must tell you that I was born and grew up in that town, and so there is nothing odd in my thinking N. extraordinarily snug, cosy, and beautiful, though for a man from Petersburg or Moscow, life in it would be as dreary and comfortless as in any Tchuhloma or Kashira. With melancholy I passed by the high school where I had been a pupil; with melancholy I walked about the very familiar park, I made a melancholy attempt to get a nearer look at people I had not seen for a long time — all with the same melancholy.
“Among other things, I drove out one evening to the so-called Quarantine. It was a small mangy copse in which, at some forgotten time of plague, there really had been a quarantine station, and which was now the resort of summer visitors. It was a drive of three miles from the town along a good soft road. As one drove along one saw on the left the blue sea, on the right the unending gloomy steppe; there was plenty of air to breathe, and wide views for the eyes to rest on. The copse itself lay on the seashore. Dismissing my cabman, I went in at the familiar gates and first turned along an avenue leading to a little stone summer-house which I had been fond of in my childhood. In my opinion that round, heavy summer-house on its clumsy columns, which combined the romantic charm of an old tomb with the ungainliness of a Sobakevitch,1 was the most poetical nook in the whole town. It stood at the edge above the cliff, and from it there was a splendid view of the sea.
1 A character in Gogol’s Dead Souls. — Translator’s Note.
“I sat down on the seat, and, bending over the parapet, looked down. A path ran from the summer-house along the steep, almost overhanging cliff, between the lumps of clay and tussocks of burdock. Where it ended, far below on the sandy shore, low waves were languidly foaming and softly purring. The sea was as majestic, as infinite, and as forbidding as seven years before when I left the high school and went from my native town to the capital; in the distance there was a dark streak of smoke — a steamer was passing — and except for this hardly visible and motionless streak and the sea-swallows that flitted over the water, there was nothing to give life to the monotonous view of sea and sky. To right and left of the summer-house stretched uneven clay cliffs.
“You know that when a man in a melancholy mood is left tête-à-tête with the sea, or any landscape which seems to him grandiose, there is always, for some reason, mixed with melancholy, a conviction that he will live and die in obscurity, and he reflectively snatches up a pencil and hastens to write his name on the first thing that comes handy. And that, I suppose, is why all convenient solitary nooks like my summer-house are always scrawled over in pencil or carved with penknives. I remember as though it were today; looking at the parapet I read: ‘Ivan Korolkov, May 16, 1876.’ Beside Korolkov some local dreamer had scribbled freely, adding:
“‘He stood on the desolate ocean’s strand,
While his soul was filled with imaginings grand.’
And his handwriting was dreamy, limp like wet silk. An individual called Kross, probably an insignificant, little man, felt his unimportance so deeply that he gave full licence to his penknife and carved his name in deep letters an inch high. I took a pencil out of my pocket mechanically, and I too scribbled on one of the columns. All that is irrelevant, however . . . You must forgive me — I don’t know how to tell a story briefly.
“I was sad and a little bored. Boredom, the stillness, and the purring of the sea gradually brought me to the line of thought we have been discussing. At that period, towards the end of the ‘seventies, it had begun to be fashionable with the public, and later, at the beginning of the ‘eighties, it gradually passed from the general public into literature, science, and politics. I was no more than twenty-six at the time, but I knew perfectly well that life was aimless and had no meaning, that everything was a deception and an illusion, that in its essential nature and results a life of penal servitude in Sahalin was not in any way different from a life spent in Nice, that the difference between the brain of a Kant and the brain of a fly was of no real significance, that no one in this world is righteous or guilty, that everything was stuff and nonsense and damn it all! I lived as though I were doing a favour to some unseen power which compelled me to live, and to which I seemed to say: ‘Look, I don’t care a straw for life, but I am living!’ I thought on one definite line, but in all sorts of keys, and in that respect I was like the subtle gourmand who could prepare a hundred appetising dishes from nothing but potatoes. There is no doubt that I was one-sided and even to some extent narrow, but I fancied at the time that my intellectual horizon had neither beginning nor end, and that my thought was as boundless as the sea. Well, as far as I can judge by myself, the philosophy of which we are speaking has something alluring, narcotic in its nature, like tobacco or morphia. It becomes a habit, a craving. You take advantage of every minute of solitude to gloat over thoughts of the aimlessness of life and the darkness of the grave. While I was sitting in the summer-house, Greek children with long noses were decorously walking about the avenues. I took advantage of the occasion and, looking at them, began reflecting in this style:
“‘Why are these children born, and what are they living for? Is there any sort of meaning in their existence? They grow up, without themselves knowing what for; they will live in this God-forsaken, comfortless hole for no sort of reason, and then they will die . . . .’
“And I actually felt vexed with those children because they were walking about decorously and talking with dignity, as though they did not hold their little colourless lives so cheap and knew what they were living for. . . . I remember that far away at the end of an avenue three feminine figures came into sight. Three young ladies, one in a pink dress, two in white, were walking arm-inarm, talking and laughing. Looking after them, I thought:
“‘It wouldn’t be bad to have an affair with some woman for a couple of days in this dull place.’
“I recalled by the way that it was three weeks since I had visited my Petersburg lady, and thought that a passing love affair would come in very appropriately for me just now. The young lady in white in the middle was rather younger and better looking than her companions, and judging by her manners and her laugh, she was a high-school girl in an upper form. I looked, not without impure thoughts, at her bust, and at the same time reflected about her: ‘She will be trained in music and manners, she will be married to some Greek — God help us! — will lead a grey, stupid, comfortless life, will bring into the world a crowd of children without knowing why, and then will die. An absurd life!’
“I must say that as a rule I was a great hand at combining my lofty ideas with the lowest prose.
“Thoughts of the darkness of the grave did not prevent me from giving busts and legs their full due. Our dear Baron’s exalted ideas do not prevent him from going on Saturdays to Vukolovka on amatory expeditions. To tell the honest truth, as far as I remember, my attitude to women was most insulting. Now, when I think of that high-school girl, I blush for my thoughts then, but at the time my conscience was perfectly untroubled. I, the son of honourable parents, a Christian, who had received a superior education, not naturally wicked or stupid, felt not the slightest uneasiness when I paid women Blutgeld, as the Germans call it, or when I followed highschool girls with insulting looks. . . . The trouble is that youth makes its demands, and our philosophy has nothing in principle against those demands, whether they are good or whether they are loathsome. One who knows that life is aimless and death inevitable is not interested in the struggle against nature or the conception of sin: whether you struggle or whether you don’t, you will die and rot just the same. . . . Secondly, my friends, our philosophy instils even into very young people what is called reasonableness. The predominance of reason over the heart is simply overwhelming amongst us. Direct feeling, inspiration — everything is choked by petty analysis. Where there is reasonableness there is coldness, and cold people — it’s no use to disguise it — know nothing of chastity. That virtue is only known to those who are warm, affectionate, and capable of love. Thirdly, our philosophy denies the significance of each individual personality. It’s easy to see that if I deny the personality of some Natalya Stepanovna, it’s absolutely nothing to me whether she is insulted or not. To-day one insults her dignity as a human being and pays her Blutgeld, and next day thinks no more of her.
“So I sat in the summer-house and watched the young ladies. Another woman’s figure appeared in the avenue, with fair hair, her head uncovered and a white knitted shawl on her shoulders. She walked along the avenue, then came into the summer-house, and taking hold of the parapet, looked indifferently below and into the distance over the sea. As she came in she paid no attention to me, as though she did not notice me. I scrutinised her from foot to head (not from head to foot, as one scrutinises men) and found that she was young, not more than five-and-twenty, nice-looking, with a good figure, in all probability married and belonging to the class of respectable women. She was dressed as though she were at home, but fashionably and with taste, as ladies are, as a rule, in N.
“‘This one would do nicely,’ I thought, looking at her handsome figure and her arms; ‘she is all right. . . . She is probably the wife of some doctor or schoolmaster . . . .’
“But to make up to her — that is, to make her the heroine of one of those impromptu affairs to which tourists are so prone — was not easy and, indeed, hardly possible. I felt that as I gazed at her face. The way she looked, and the expression of her face, suggested that the sea, the smoke in the distance, and the sky had bored her long, long ago, and wearied her sight. She seemed to be tired, bored, and thinking about something dreary, and her face had not even that fussy, affectedly indifferent expression which one sees in the face of almost every woman when she is conscious of the presence of an unknown man in her vicinity.
“The fair-haired lady took a bored and passing glance at me, sat down on a seat and sank into reverie, and from her face I saw that she had no thoughts for me, and that I, with my Petersburg appearance, did not arouse in her even simple curiosity. But yet I made up my mind to speak to her, and asked: ‘Madam, allow me to ask you at what time do the waggonettes go from here to the town?’
“‘At ten or eleven, I believe . . . .’”
“I thanked her. She glanced at me once or twice, and suddenly there was a gleam of curiosity, then of something like wonder on her passionless face. . . . I made haste to assume an indifferent expression and to fall into a suitable attitude; she was catching on! She suddenly jumped up from the seat, as though something had bitten her, and examining me hurriedly, with a gentle smile, asked timidly:
“‘Oh, aren’t you Ananyev?’
“‘Yes, I am Ananyev,’ I answered.
“‘And don’t you recognise me? No?’
“I was a little confused. I looked intently at her, and — would you believe it? — I recognised her not from her face nor her figure, but from her gentle, weary smile. It was Natalya Stepanovna, or, as she was called, Kisotchka, the very girl I had been head over ears in love with seven or eight years before, when I was wearing the uniform of a high-school boy. The doings of far, vanished days, the days of long ago. . . . I remember this Kisotchka, a thin little high-school girl of fifteen or sixteen, when she was something just for a schoolboy’s taste, created by nature especially for Platonic love. What a charming little girl she was! Pale, fragile, light — she looked as though a breath would send her flying like a feather to the skies — a gentle, perplexed face, little hands, soft long hair to her belt, a waist as thin as a wasp’s — altogether something ethereal, transparent like moonlight — in fact, from the point of view of a high-school boy a peerless beauty. . . . Wasn’t I in love with her! I did not sleep at night. I wrote verses. . . . Sometimes in the evenings she would sit on a seat in the park while we schoolboys crowded round her, gazing reverently; in response to our compliments, our sighing, and attitudinising, she would shrink nervously from the evening damp, screw up her eyes, and smile gently, and at such times she was awfully like a pretty little kitten. As we gazed at her every one of us had a desire to caress her and stroke her like a cat, hence her nickname of Kisotchka.
“In the course of the seven or eight years since we had met, Kisotchka had greatly changed. She had grown more robust and stouter, and had quite lost the resemblance to a soft, fluffy kitten. It was not that her features looked old or faded, but they had somehow lost their brilliance and looked sterner, her hair seemed shorter, she looked taller, and her shoulders were quite twice as broad, and what was most striking, there was already in her face the expression of motherliness and resignation commonly seen in respectable women of her age, and this, of course, I had never seen in her before. . . . In short, of the school-girlish and the Platonic her face had kept the gentle smile and nothing more . . . .
“We got into conversation. Learning that I was already an engineer, Kisotchka was immensely delighted.
“‘How good that is!’ she said, looking joyfully into my face. ‘Ah, how good! And how splendid you all are! Of all who left with you, not one has been a failure — they have all turned out well. One an engineer, another a doctor, a third a teacher, another, they say, is a celebrated singer in Petersburg. . . . You are all splendid, all of you. . . . Ah, how good that is!’
“Kisotchka’s eyes shone with genuine goodwill and gladness. She was admiring me like an elder sister or a former governess. ‘While I looked at her sweet face and thought, ‘It wouldn’t be bad to get hold of her today!’
“‘Do you remember, Natalya Stepanovna,’ I asked her, ‘how I once brought you in the park a bouquet with a note in it? You read my note, and such a look of bewilderment came into your face . . . .’
“‘No, I don’t remember that,’ she said, laughing. ‘But I remember how you wanted to challenge Florens to a duel over me . . . .’
“‘Well, would you believe it, I don’t remember that . . . .’
“‘Well, that’s all over and done with . . .’ sighed Kisotchka. ‘At one time I was your idol, and now it is my turn to look up to all of you . . . .’
“From further conversation I learned that two years after leaving the high school, Kisotchka had been married to a resident in the town who was half Greek, half Russian, had a post either in the bank or in the insurance society, and also carried on a trade in corn. He had a strange surname, something in the style of Populaki or Skarandopulo. . . . Goodness only knows — I have forgotten. . . . As a matter of fact, Kisotchka spoke little and with reluctance about herself. The conversation was only about me. She asked me about the College of Engineering, about my comrades, about Petersburg, about my plans, and everything I said moved her to eager delight and exclamations of, ‘Oh, how good that is!’
“We went down to the sea and walked over the sands; then when the night air began to blow chill and damp from the sea we climbed up again. All the while our talk was of me and of the past. We walked about until the reflection of the sunset had died away from the windows of the summer villas.
“‘Come in and have some tea,’ Kisotchka suggested. ‘The samovar must have been on the table long ago. . . . I am alone at home,’ she said, as her villa came into sight through the green of the acacias. ‘My husband is always in the town and only comes home at night, and not always then, and I must own that I am so dull that it’s simply deadly.’
“I followed her in, admiring her back and shoulders. I was glad that she was married. Married women are better material for temporary love affairs than girls. I was also pleased that her husband was not at home. At the same time I felt that the affair would not come off . . . .
“We went into the house. The rooms were smallish and had low ceilings, and the furniture was typical of the summer villa (Russians like having at their summer villas uncomfortable heavy, dingy furniture which they are sorry to throw away and have nowhere to put), but from certain details I could observe that Kisotchka and her husband were not badly off, and must be spending five or six thousand roubles a year. I remember that in the middle of the room which Kisotchka called the dining-room there was a round table, supported for some reason on six legs, and on it a samovar and cups. At the edge of the table lay an open book, a pencil, and an exercise book. I glanced at the book and recognised it as ‘Malinin and Burenin’s Arithmetical Examples.’ It was open, as I now remember, at the ‘Rules of Compound Interest.’
“‘To whom are you giving lessons?’ I asked Kisotchka.’
“‘Nobody,’ she answered. ‘I am just doing some. . . . I have nothing to do, and am so bored that I think of the old days and do sums.’
“‘Have you any children?’
“‘I had a baby boy, but he only lived a week.’
“We began drinking tea. Admiring me, Kisotchka said again how good it was that I was an engineer, and how glad she was of my success. And the more she talked and the more genuinely she smiled, the stronger was my conviction that I should go away without having gained my object. I was a connoisseur in love affairs in those days, and could accurately gauge my chances of success. You can boldly reckon on success if you are tracking down a fool or a woman as much on the look out for new experiences and sensations as yourself, or an adventuress to whom you are a stranger. If you come across a sensible and serious woman, whose face has an expression of weary submission and goodwill, who is genuinely delighted at your presence, and, above all, respects you, you may as well turn back. To succeed in that case needs longer than one day.
“And by evening light Kisotchka seemed even more charming than by day. She attracted me more and more, and apparently she liked me too, and the surroundings were most appropriate: the husband not at home, no servants visible, stillness around. . . . Though I had little confidence in success, I made up my mind to begin the attack anyway. First of all it was necessary to get into a familiar tone and to change Kisotchka’s lyrically earnest mood into a more frivolous one.
“‘Let us change the conversation, Natalya Stepanovna,’ I began. ‘Let us talk of something amusing. First of all, allow me, for the sake of old times, to call you Kisotchka.’
“She allowed me.
“‘Tell me, please, Kisotchka,’ I went on, ‘what is the matter with all the fair sex here. What has happened to them? In old days they were all so moral and virtuous, and now, upon my word, if one asks about anyone, one is told such things that one is quite shocked at human nature. . . . One young lady has eloped with an officer; another has run away and carried off a high-school boy with her; another — a married woman — has run away from her husband with an actor; a fourth has left her husband and gone off with an officer, and so on and so on. It’s a regular epidemic! If it goes on like this there won’t be a girl or a young woman left in your town!’
“I spoke in a vulgar, playful tone. If Kisotchka had laughed in response I should have gone on in this style: ‘You had better look out, Kisotchka, or some officer or actor will be carrying you off!’ She would have dropped her eyes and said: ‘As though anyone would care to carry me off; there are plenty younger and better looking . . . .’ And I should have said: ‘Nonsense, Kisotchka — I for one should be delighted!’ And so on in that style, and it would all have gone swimmingly. But Kisotchka did not laugh in response; on the contrary, she looked grave and sighed.
“‘All you have been told is true,’ she said. ‘My cousin Sonya ran away from her husband with an actor. Of course, it is wrong. . . . Everyone ought to bear the lot that fate has laid on him, but I do not condemn them or blame them. . . . Circumstances are sometimes too strong for anyone!’
“‘That is so, Kisotchka, but what circumstances can produce a regular epidemic?’
“‘It’s very simple and easy to understand,’ replied Kisotchka, raising her eyebrows. ‘There is absolutely nothing for us educated girls and women to do with ourselves. Not everyone is able to go to the University, to become a teacher, to live for ideas, in fact, as men do. They have to be married. . . . And whom would you have them marry? You boys leave the high-school and go away to the University, never to return to your native town again, and you marry in Petersburg or Moscow, while the girls remain. . . . To whom are they to be married? Why, in the absence of decent cultured men, goodness knows what sort of men they marry — stockbrokers and such people of all kinds, who can do nothing but drink and get into rows at the club. . . . A girl married like that, at random. . . . And what is her life like afterwards? You can understand: a well-educated, cultured woman is living with a stupid, boorish man; if she meets a cultivated man, an officer, an actor, or a doctor — well, she gets to love him, her life becomes unbearable to her, and she runs away from her husband. And one can’t condemn her!’
“‘If that is so, Kisotchka, why get married?’ I asked.
“‘Yes, of course,’ said Kisotchka with a sigh, ‘but you know every girl fancies that any husband is better than nothing. . . . Altogether life is horrid here, Nikolay Anastasyevitch, very horrid! Life is stifling for a girl and stifling when one is married. . . . Here they laugh at Sonya for having run away from her husband, but if they could see into her soul they would not laugh . . . .’”
Azorka began barking outside again. He growled angrily at some one, then howled miserably and dashed with all his force against the wall of the hut. . . . Ananyev’s face was puckered with pity; he broke off his story and went out. For two minutes he could be heard outside comforting his dog. “Good dog! poor dog!”
“Our Nikolay Anastasyevitch is fond of talking,” said Von Schtenberg, laughing. “He is a good fellow,” he added after a brief silence.
Returning to the hut, the engineer filled up our glasses and, smiling and stroking his chest, went on:
“And so my attack was unsuccessful. There was nothing for it, I put off my unclean thoughts to a more favourable occasion, resigned myself to my failure and, as the saying is, waved my hand. What is more, under the influence of Kisotchka’s voice, the evening air, and the stillness, I gradually myself fell into a quiet sentimental mood. I remember I sat in an easy chair by the wide-open window and glanced at the trees and darkened sky. The outlines of the acacias and the lime trees were just the same as they had been eight years before; just as then, in the days of my childhood, somewhere far away there was the tinkling of a wretched piano, and the public had just the same habit of sauntering to and fro along the avenues, but the people were not the same. Along the avenues there walked now not my comrades and I and the object of my adoration, but schoolboys and young ladies who were strangers. And I felt melancholy. When to my inquiries about acquaintances I five times received from Kisotchka the answer, ‘He is dead,’ my melancholy changed into the feeling one has at the funeral service of a good man. And sitting there at the window, looking at the promenading public and listening to the tinkling piano, I saw with my own eyes for the first time in my life with what eagerness one generation hastens to replace another, and what a momentous significance even some seven or eight years may have in a man’s life!
“Kisotchka put a bottle of red wine on the table. I drank it off, grew sentimental, and began telling a long story about something or other. Kisotchka listened as before, admiring me and my cleverness. And time passed. The sky was by now so dark that the outlines of the acacias and lime trees melted into one, the public was no longer walking up and down the avenues, the piano was silent and the only sound was the even murmur of the sea.
“Young people are all alike. Be friendly to a young man, make much of him, regale him with wine, let him understand that he is attractive and he will sit on and on, forget that it is time to go, and talk and talk and talk. . . . His hosts cannot keep their eyes open, it’s past their bedtime, and he still stays and talks. That was what I did. Once I chanced to look at the clock; it was half-past ten. I began saying good-bye.
“‘Have another glass before your walk,’ said Kisotchka.
“I took another glass, again I began talking at length, forgot it was time to go, and sat down. Then there came the sound of men’s voices, footsteps and the clank of spurs.
“‘I think my husband has come in . . . .’ said Kisotchka listening.
“The door creaked, two voices came now from the passage and I saw two men pass the door that led into the dining-room: one a stout, solid, dark man with a hooked nose, wearing a straw hat, and the other a young officer in a white tunic. As they passed the door they both glanced casually and indifferently at Kisotchka and me, and I fancied both of them were drunk.
“‘She told you a lie then, and you believed her!’ we heard a loud voice with a marked nasal twang say a minute later. ‘To begin with, it wasn’t at the big club but at the little one.’
“‘You are angry, Jupiter, so you are wrong . . . .’ said another voice, obviously the officer’s, laughing and coughing. ‘I say, can I stay the night? Tell me honestly, shall I be in your way?’
“‘What a question! Not only you can, but you must. What will you have, beer or wine?’
“They were sitting two rooms away from us, talking loudly, and apparently feeling no interest in Kisotchka or her visitor. A perceptible change came over Kisotchka on her husband’s arrival. At first she flushed red, then her face wore a timid, guilty expression; she seemed to be troubled by some anxiety, and I began to fancy that she was ashamed to show me her husband and wanted me to go.
“I began taking leave. Kisotchka saw me to the front door. I remember well her gentle mournful smile and kind patient eyes as she pressed my hand and said:
“‘Most likely we shall never see each other again. Well, God give you every blessing. Thank you!’
“Not one sigh, not one fine phrase. As she said good-bye she was holding the candle in her hand; patches of light danced over her face and neck, as though chasing her mournful smile. I pictured to myself the old Kisotchka whom one used to want to stroke like a cat, I looked intently at the present Kisotchka, and for some reason recalled her words: ‘Everyone ought to bear the lot that fate has laid on him.’ And I had a pang at my heart. I instinctively guessed how it was, and my conscience whispered to me that I, in my happiness and indifference, was face to face with a good, warm-hearted, loving creature, who was broken by suffering.
“I said good-bye and went to the gate. By now it was quite dark. In the south the evenings draw in early in July and it gets dark rapidly. Towards ten o’clock it is so dark that you can’t see an inch before your nose. I lighted a couple of dozen matches before, almost groping, I found my way to the gate.
“‘Cab!’ I shouted, going out of the gate; not a sound, not a sigh in answer. . . . ‘Cab,’ I repeated, ‘hey, Cab!’
“But there was no cab of any description. The silence of the grave. I could hear nothing but the murmur of the drowsy sea and the beating of my heart from the wine. Lifting my eyes to the sky I found not a single star. It was dark and sullen. Evidently the sky was covered with clouds. For some reason I shrugged my shoulders, smiling foolishly, and once more, not quite so resolutely, shouted for a cab.
“The echo answered me. A walk of three miles across open country and in the pitch dark was not an agreeable prospect. Before making up my mind to walk, I spent a long time deliberating and shouting for a cab; then, shrugging my shoulders, I walked lazily back to the copse, with no definite object in my mind. It was dreadfully dark in the copse. Here and there between the trees the windows of the summer villas glowed a dull red. A raven, disturbed by my steps and the matches with which I lighted my way to the summer-house, flew from tree to tree and rustled among the leaves. I felt vexed and ashamed, and the raven seemed to understand this, and croaked ‘krrra!’ I was vexed that I had to walk, and ashamed that I had stayed on at Kisotchka’s, chatting like a boy.
“I made my way to the summer-house, felt for the seat and sat down. Far below me, behind a veil of thick darkness, the sea kept up a low angry growl. I remember that, as though I were blind, I could see neither sky nor sea, nor even the summer-house in which I was sitting. And it seemed to me as though the whole world consisted only of the thoughts that were straying through my head, dizzy from the wine, and of an unseen power murmuring monotonously somewhere below. And afterwards, as I sank into a doze, it began to seem that it was not the sea murmuring, but my thoughts, and that the whole world consisted of nothing but me. And concentrating the whole world in myself in this way, I thought no more of cabs, of the town, and of Kisotchka, and abandoned myself to the sensation I was so fond of: that is, the sensation of fearful isolation when you feel that in the whole universe, dark and formless, you alone exist. It is a proud, demoniac sensation, only possible to Russians whose thoughts and sensations are as large, boundless, and gloomy as their plains, their forests, and their snow. If I had been an artist I should certainly have depicted the expression of a Russian’s face when he sits motionless and, with his legs under him and his head clasped in his hands, abandons himself to this sensation. . . . And together with this sensation come thoughts of the aimlessness of life, of death, and of the darkness of the grave. . . . The thoughts are not worth a brass farthing, but the expression of face must be fine . . . .
“While I was sitting and dozing, unable to bring myself to get up — I was warm and comfortable — all at once, against the even monotonous murmur of the sea, as though upon a canvas, sounds began to grow distinct which drew my attention from myself. . . . Someone was coming hurriedly along the avenue. Reaching the summer-house this someone stopped, gave a sob like a little girl, and said in the voice of a weeping child: ‘My God, when will it all end! Merciful Heavens!’
“Judging from the voice and the weeping I took it to be a little girl of ten or twelve. She walked irresolutely into the summer-house, sat down, and began half-praying, half-complaining aloud . . . .
“‘Merciful God!’ she said, crying, ‘it’s unbearable. It’s beyond all endurance! I suffer in silence, but I want to live too. . . . Oh, my God! My God!’
“And so on in the same style.
“I wanted to look at the child and speak to her. So as not to frighten her I first gave a loud sigh and coughed, then cautiously struck a match. . . . There was a flash of bright light in the darkness, which lighted up the weeping figure. It was Kisotchka!”
“Marvels upon marvels!” said Von Schtenberg with a sigh. “Black night, the murmur of the sea; she in grief, he with a sensation of world — solitude. . . . It’s too much of a good thing. . . . You only want Circassians with daggers to complete it.”
“I am not telling you a tale, but fact.”
“Well, even if it is a fact . . . it all proves nothing, and there is nothing new in it . . . .”
“Wait a little before you find fault! Let me finish,” said Ananyev, waving his hand with vexation; “don’t interfere, please! I am not telling you, but the doctor. . . . Well,” he went on, addressing me and glancing askance at the student who bent over his books and seemed very well satisfied at having gibed at the engineer —“well, Kisotchka was not surprised or frightened at seeing me. It seemed as though she had known beforehand that she would find me in the summer-house. She was breathing in gasps and trembling all over as though in a fever, while her tear-stained face, so far as I could distinguish it as I struck match after match, was not the intelligent, submissive weary face I had seen before, but something different, which I cannot understand to this day. It did not express pain, nor anxiety, nor misery — nothing of what was expressed by her words and her tears. . . . I must own that, probably because I did not understand it, it looked to me senseless and as though she were drunk.
“‘I can’t bear it,’ muttered Kisotchka in the voice of a crying child. ‘It’s too much for me, Nikolay Anastasyitch. Forgive me, Nikolav Anastasyitch. I can’t go on living like this. . . . I am going to the town to my mother’s. . . . Take me there. . . . Take me there, for God’s sake!’
“In the presence of tears I can neither speak nor be silent. I was flustered and muttered some nonsense trying to comfort her.
“‘No, no; I will go to my mother’s,’ said Kisotchka resolutely, getting up and clutching my arm convulsively (her hands and her sleeves were wet with tears). ‘Forgive me, Nikolay Anastasyitch, I am going. . . . I can bear no more . . . .’
“‘Kisotchka, but there isn’t a single cab,’ I said. ‘How can you go?’
“‘No matter, I’ll walk. . . . It’s not far. I can’t bear it . . . .’
“I was embarrassed, but not touched. Kisotchka’s tears, her trembling, and the blank expression of her face suggested to me a trivial, French or Little Russian melodrama, in which every ounce of cheap shallow feeling is washed down with pints of tears.
“I didn t understand her, and knew I did not understand her; I ought to have been silent, but for some reason, most likely for fear my silence might be taken for stupidity, I thought fit to try to persuade her not to go to her mother’s, but to stay at home. When people cry, they don’t like their tears to be seen. And I lighted match after match and went on striking till the box was empty. What I wanted with this ungenerous illumination, I can’t conceive to this day. Cold-hearted people are apt to be awkward, and even stupid.
“In the end Kisotchka took my arm and we set off. Going out of the gate, we turned to the right and sauntered slowly along the soft dusty road. It was dark. As my eyes grew gradually accustomed to the darkness, I began to distinguish the silhouettes of the old gaunt oaks and lime trees which bordered the road. The jagged, precipitous cliffs, intersected here and there by deep, narrow ravines and creeks, soon showed indistinctly, a black streak on the right. Low bushes nestled by the hollows, looking like sitting figures. It was uncanny. I looked sideways suspiciously at the cliffs, and the murmur of the sea and the stillness of the country alarmed my imagination. Kisotchka did not speak. She was still trembling, and before she had gone half a mile she was exhausted with walking and was out of breath. I too was silent.
“Three-quarters of a mile from the Quarantine Station there was a deserted building of four storeys, with a very high chimney in which there had once been a steam flour mill. It stood solitary on the cliff, and by day it could be seen for a long distance, both by sea and by land. Because it was deserted and no one lived in it, and because there was an echo in it which distinctly repeated the steps and voices of passers-by, it seemed mysterious. Picture me in the dark night arm-inarm with a woman who was running away from her husband near this tall long monster which repeated the sound of every step I took and stared at me fixedly with its hundred black windows. A normal young man would have been moved to romantic feelings in such surroundings, but I looked at the dark windows and thought: ‘All this is very impressive, but time will come when of that building and of Kisntchka and her troubles and of me with my thoughts, not one grain of dust will remain. . . . All is nonsense and vanity . . . .’
“When we reached the flour mill Kisotchka suddenly stopped, took her arm out of mine, and said, no longer in a childish voice, but in her own:
“‘Nikolay Anastasvitch, I know all this seems strange to you. But I am terribly unhappy! And you cannot even imagine how unhappy! It’s impossible to imagine it! I don’t tell you about it because one can’t talk about it. . . . Such a life, such a life! . . .’
“Kisotchka did not finish. She clenched her teeth and moaned as though she were doing her utmost not to scream with pain.
“‘Such a life!’ she repeated with horror, with the cadence and the southern, rather Ukrainian accent which particularly in women gives to emotional speech the effect of singing. ‘It is a life! Ah, my God, my God! what does it mean? Oh, my God, my God!’
“As though trying to solve the riddle of her fate, she shrugged her shoulders in perplexity, shook her head, and clasped her hands. She spoke as though she were singing, moved gracefully, and reminded me of a celebrated Little Russian actress.
“‘Great God, it is as though I were in a pit,’ she went on. ‘If one could live for one minute in happiness as other people live! Oh, my God, my God! I have come to such disgrace that before a stranger I am running away from my husband by night, like some disreputable creature! Can I expect anything good after that?’
“As I admired her movements and her voice, I began to feel annoyed that she was not on good terms with her husband. ‘It would be nice to have got on into relations with her!’ flitted through my mind; and this pitiless thought stayed in my brain, haunted me all the way and grew more and more alluring.
“About a mile from the flour mill we had to turn to the left by the cemetery. At the turning by the corner of the cemetery there stood a stone windmill, and by it a little hut in which the miller lived. We passed the mill and the hut, turned to the left and reached the gates of the cemetery. There Kisotchka stopped and said:
“‘I am going back, Nikolay Anastasyitch! You go home, and God bless you, but I am going back. I am not frightened.’
“‘Well, what next!’ I said, disconcerted. ‘If you are going, you had better go!’
“‘I have been too hasty. . . . It was all about nothing that mattered. You and your talk took me back to the past and put all sort of ideas into my head. . . . I was sad and wanted to cry, and my husband said rude things to me before that officer, and I could not bear it. . . . And what’s the good of my going to the town to my mother’s? Will that make me any happier? I must go back. . . . But never mind . . . let us go on,’ said Kisotchka, and she laughed. ‘It makes no difference!’
“I remembered that over the gate of the cemetery there was an inscription: ‘The hour will come wherein all they that lie in the grave will hear the voice of the Son of God.’ I knew very well that sooner of later I and Kisotchka and her husband and the officer in the white tunic would lie under the dark trees in the churchyard; I knew that an unhappy and insulted fellow-creature was walking beside me. All this I recognised distinctly, but at the same time I was troubled by an oppressive and unpleasant dread that Kisotchka would turn back, and that I should not manage to say to her what had to be said. Never at any other time in my life have thoughts of a higher order been so closely interwoven with the basest animal prose as on that night. . . . It was horrible!
“Not far from the cemetery we found a cab. When we reached the High Street, where Kisotchka’s mother lived, we dismissed the cab and walked along the pavement. Kisotchka was silent all the while, while I looked at her, and I raged at myself, ‘Why don’t you begin? Now’s the time!’ About twenty paces from the hotel where I was staying, Kisotchka stopped by the lamp-post and burst into tears.
“‘Nikolay Anastasyitch!’ she said, crying and laughing and looking at me with wet shining eyes, ‘I shall never forget your sympathy . . . . How good you are! All of you are so splendid — all of you! Honest, great-hearted, kind, clever. . . . Ah, how good that is!’
“She saw in me a highly educated man, advanced in every sense of the word, and on her tear-stained laughing face, together with the emotion and enthusiasm aroused by my personality, there was clearly written regret that she so rarely saw such people, and that God had not vouchsafed her the bliss of being the wife of one of them. She muttered, ‘Ah, how splendid it is!’ The childish gladness on her face, the tears, the gentle smile, the soft hair, which had escaped from under the kerchief, and the kerchief itself thrown carelessly over her head, in the light of the street lamp reminded me of the old Kisotchka whom one had wanted to stroke like a kitten.
“I could not restrain myself, and began stroking her hair, her shoulders, and her hands.
“‘Kisotchka, what do you want?’ I muttered. ‘I’ll go to the ends of the earth with you if you like! I will take you out of this hole and give you happiness. I love you. . . . Let us go, my sweet? Yes? Will you?’
“Kisotchka’s face was flooded with bewilderment. She stepped back from the street lamp and, completely overwhelmed, gazed at me with wide-open eyes. I gripped her by the arm, began showering kisses on her face, her neck, her shoulders, and went on making vows and promises. In love affairs vows and promises are almost a physiological necessity. There’s no getting on without them. Sometimes you know you are lying and that promises are not necessary, but still you vow and protest. Kisotchka, utterly overwhelmed, kept staggering back and gazing at me with round eyes.
“‘Please don’t! Please don’t!’ she muttered, holding me off with her hands.
“I clasped her tightly in my arms. All at once she broke into hysterical tears. And her face had the same senseless blank expression that I had seen in the summer-house when I lighted the matches. Without asking her consent, preventing her from speaking, I dragged her forcibly towards my hotel. She seemed almost swooning and did not walk, but I took her under the arms and almost carried her. . . . I remember, as we were going up the stairs, some man with a red band in his cap looked wonderingly at me and bowed to Kisotchka . . . .”
Ananvev flushed crimson and paused. He walked up and down near the table in silence, scratched the back of his head with an air of vexation, and several times shrugged his shoulders and twitched his shoulder-blades, while a shiver ran down his huge back. The memory was painful and made him ashamed, and he was struggling with himself.
“It’s horrible!” he said, draining a glass of wine and shaking his head. “I am told that in every introductory lecture on women’s diseases the medical students are admonished to remember that each one of them has a mother, a sister, a fiancée, before undressing and examining a female patient. . . . That advice would be very good not only for medical students but for everyone who in one way or another has to deal with a woman’s life. Now that I have a wife and a little daughter, oh, how well I understand that advice! How I understand it, my God! You may as well hear the rest, though. . . . As soon as she had become my mistress, Kisotchka’s view of the position was very different from mine. First of all she felt for me a deep and passionate love. What was for me an ordinary amatory episode was for her an absolute revolution in her life. I remember, it seemed to me that she had gone out of her mind. Happy for the first time in her life, looking five years younger, with an inspired enthusiastic face, not knowing what to do with herself for happiness, she laughed and cried and never ceased dreaming aloud how next day we would set off for the Caucasus, then in the autumn to Petersburg; how we would live afterwards.
“‘Don’t worry yourself about my husband,’ she said to reassure me. ‘He is bound to give me a divorce. Everyone in the town knows that he is living with the elder Kostovitch. We will get a divorce and be married.’
“When women love they become acclimatised and at home with people very quickly, like cats. Kisotchka had only spent an hour and a half in my room when she already felt as though she were at home and was ready to treat my property as though it were her own. She packed my things in my portmanteau, scolded me for not hanging my new expensive overcoat on a peg instead of flinging it on a chair, and so on.
“I looked at her, listened, and felt weariness and vexation. I was conscious of a slight twinge of horror at the thought that a respectable, honest, and unhappy woman had so easily, after some three or four hours, succumbed to the first man she met. As a respectable man, you see, I didn’t like it. Then, too, I was unpleasantly impressed by the fact that women of Kisotchka’s sort, not deep or serious, are too much in love with life, and exalt what is in reality such a trifle as love for a man to the level of bliss, misery, a complete revolution in life. . . . Moreover, now that I was satisfied, I was vexed with myself for having been so stupid as to get entangled with a woman whom I should have to deceive. And in spite of my disorderly life I must observe that I could not bear telling lies.
“I remember that Kisotchka sat down at my feet, laid her head on my knees, and, looking at me with shining, loving eyes, asked:
“‘Kolya, do you love me? Very, very much?’
“And she laughed with happiness. . . . This struck me as sentimental, affected, and not clever; and meanwhile I was already inclined to look for ‘depth of thought’ before everything.
“‘Kisotchka, you had better go home,’ I said, or else your people will be sure to miss you and will be looking for you all over the town; and it would be awkward for you to go to your mother in the morning.’
“Kisotchka agreed. At parting we arranged to meet at midday next morning in the park, and the day after to set off together to Pyatigorsk. I went into the street to see her home, and I remember that I caressed her with genuine tenderness on the way. There was a minute when I felt unbearably sorry for her, for trusting me so implicitly, and I made up my mind that I would really take her to Pyatigorsk, but remembering that I had only six hundred roubles in my portmanteau, and that it would be far more difficult to break it off with her in the autumn than now, I made haste to suppress my compassion.
“We reached the house where Kisotchka’s mother lived. I pulled at the bell. When footsteps were heard at the other side of the door Kisotchka suddenly looked grave, glanced upwards to the sky, made the sign of the Cross over me several times and, clutching my hand, pressed it to her lips.
“‘Till tomorrow,’ she said, and disappeared into the house.
“I crossed to the opposite pavement and from there looked at the house. At first the windows were in darkness, then in one of the windows there was the glimmer of the faint bluish flame of a newly lighted candle; the flame grew, gave more light, and I saw shadows moving about the rooms together with it.
“‘They did not expect her,’ I thought.
“Returning to my hotel room I undressed, drank off a glass of red wine, ate some fresh caviare which I had bought that day in the bazaar, went to bed in a leisurely way, and slept the sound, untroubled sleep of a tourist.
“In the morning I woke up with a headache and in a bad humour. Something worried me.
“‘What’s the matter?’ I asked myself, trying to explain my uneasiness. ‘What’s upsetting me?’
“And I put down my uneasiness to the dread that Kisotchka might turn up any minute and prevent my going away, and that I should have to tell lies and act a part before her. I hurriedly dressed, packed my things, and left the hotel, giving instructions to the porter to take my luggage to the station for the seven o’clock train in the evening. I spent the whole day with a doctor friend and left the town that evening. As you see, my philosophy did not prevent me from taking to my heels in a mean and treacherous flight . . . .
“All the while that I was at my friend’s, and afterwards driving to the station, I was tormented by anxiety. I fancied that I was afraid of meeting with Kisotchka and a scene. In the station I purposely remained in the toilet room till the second bell rang, and while I was making my way to my compartment, I was oppressed by a feeling as though I were covered all over with stolen things. With what impatience and terror I waited for the third bell!
“At last the third bell that brought my deliverance rang at last, the train moved; we passed the prison, the barracks, came out into the open country, and yet, to my surprise, the feeling of uneasiness still persisted, and still I felt like a thief passionately longing to escape. It was queer. To distract my mind and calm myself I looked out of the window. The train ran along the coast. The sea was smooth, and the turquoise sky, almost half covered with the tender, golden crimson light of sunset, was gaily and serenely mirrored in it. Here and there fishing boats and rafts made black patches on its surface. The town, as clean and beautiful as a toy, stood on the high cliff, and was already shrouded in the mist of evening. The golden domes of its churches, the windows and the greenery reflected the setting sun, glowing and melting like shimmering gold. . . . The scent of the fields mingled with the soft damp air from the sea.
“The train flew rapidly along. I heard the laughter of passengers and guards. Everyone was good-humoured and light-hearted, yet my unaccountable uneasiness grew greater and greater. . . . I looked at the white mist that covered the town and I imagined how a woman with a senseless blank face was hurrying up and down in that mist by the churches and the houses, looking for me and moaning, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God!’ in the voice of a little girl or the cadences of a Little Russian actress. I recalled her grave face and big anxious eyes as she made the sign of the Cross over me, as though I belonged to her, and mechanically I looked at the hand which she had kissed the day before.
“‘Surely I am not in love?’ I asked myself, scratching my hand.
“Only as night came on when the passengers were asleep and I was left tête-à-tête with my conscience, I began to understand what I had not been able to grasp before. In the twilight of the railway carriage the image of Kisotchka rose before me, haunted me and I recognised clearly that I had committed a crime as bad as murder. My conscience tormented me. To stifle this unbearable feeling, I assured myself that everything was nonsense and vanity, that Kisotchka and I would die and decay, that her grief was nothing in comparison with death, and so on and so on . . . and that if you come to that, there is no such thing as freewill, and that therefore I was not to blame. But all these arguments only irritated me and were extraordinarily quickly crowded out by other thoughts. There was a miserable feeling in the hand that Kisotchka had kissed. . . . I kept lying down and getting up again, drank vodka at the stations, forced myself to eat bread and butter, fell to assuring myself again that life had no meaning, but nothing was of any use. A strange and if you like absurd ferment was going on in my brain. The most incongruous ideas crowded one after another in disorder, getting more and more tangled, thwarting each other, and I, the thinker, ‘with my brow bent on the earth,’ could make out nothing and could not find my bearings in this mass of essential and non-essential ideas. It appeared that I, the thinker, had not mastered the technique of thinking, and that I was no more capable of managing my own brain than mending a watch. For the first time in my life I was really thinking eagerly and intensely, and that seemed to me so monstrous that I said to myself: ‘I am going off my head.’ A man whose brain does not work at all times, but only at painful moments, is often haunted by the thought of madness.
“I spent a day and a night in this misery, then a second night, and learning from experience how little my philosophy was to me, I came to my senses and realised at last what sort of a creature I was. I saw that my ideas were not worth a brass farthing, and that before meeting Kisotchka I had not begun to think and had not even a conception of what thinking in earnest meant; now through suffering I realised that I had neither convictions nor a definite moral standard, nor heart, nor reason; my whole intellectual and moral wealth consisted of specialist knowledge, fragments, useless memories, other people’s ideas — and nothing else; and my mental processes were as lacking in complexity, as useless and as rudimentary as a Yakut’s. . . . If I had disliked lying, had not stolen, had not murdered, and, in fact, made obviously gross mistakes, that was not owing to my convictions — I had none, but because I was in bondage, hand and foot, to my nurse’s fairy tales and to copy-book morals, which had entered into my flesh and blood and without my noticing it guided me in life, though I looked on them as absurd . . . .
“I realised that I was not a thinker, not a philosopher, but simply a dilettante. God had given me a strong healthy Russian brain with promise of talent. And, only fancy, here was that brain at twenty-six, undisciplined, completely free from principles, not weighed down by any stores of knowledge, but only lightly sprinkled with information of a sort in the engineering line; it was young and had a physiological craving for exercise, it was on the look-out for it, when all at once quite casually the fine juicy idea of the aimlessness of life and the darkness beyond the tomb descends upon it. It greedily sucks it in, puts its whole outlook at its disposal and begins playing with it, like a cat with a mouse. There is neither learning nor system in the brain, but that does not matter. It deals with the great ideas with its own innate powers, like a self-educated man, and before a month has passed the owner of the brain can turn a potato into a hundred dainty dishes, and fancies himself a philosopher . . . .
“Our generation has carried this dilettantism, this playing with serious ideas into science, into literature, into politics, and into everything which it is not too lazy to go into, and with its dilettantism has introduced, too, its coldness, its boredom, and its one-sidedness and, as it seems to me, it has already succeeded in developing in the masses a new hitherto non-existent attitude to serious ideas.
“I realised and appreciated my abnormality and utter ignorance, thanks to a misfortune. My normal thinking, so it seems to me now, dates from the day when I began again from the A, B, C, when my conscience sent me flying back to N., when with no philosophical subleties I repented, besought Kisotchka’s forgiveness like a naughty boy and wept with her . . . .”
Ananyev briefly described his last interview with Kisotchka.
“H’m . . . .” the student filtered through his teeth when the engineer had finished. “That’s the sort of thing that happens.”
His face still expressed mental inertia, and apparently Ananyev’s story had not touched him in the least. Only when the engineer after a moment’s pause, began expounding his view again and repeating what he had said at first, the student frowned irritably, got up from the table and walked away to his bed. He made his bed and began undressing.
“You look as though you have really convinced some one this time,” he said irritably.
“Me convince anybody!” said the engineer. “My dear soul, do you suppose I claim to do that? God bless you! To convince you is impossible. You can reach conviction only by way of personal experience and suffering!”
“And then — it’s queer logic!” grumbled the student as he put on his nightshirt. “The ideas which you so dislike, which are so ruinous for the young are, according to you, the normal thing for the old; it’s as though it were a question of grey hairs. . . . Where do the old get this privilege? What is it based upon? If these ideas are poison, they are equally poisonous for all?”
“Oh, no, my dear soul, don’t say so!” said the engineer with a sly wink. “Don’t say so. In the first place, old men are not dilettanti. Their pessimism comes to them not casually from outside, but from the depths of their own brains, and only after they have exhaustively studied the Hegels and Kants of all sorts, have suffered, have made no end of mistakes, in fact — when they have climbed the whole ladder from bottom to top. Their pessimism has both personal experience and sound philosophic training behind it. Secondly, the pessimism of old thinkers does not take the form of idle talk, as it does with you and me, but of Weltschmertz, of suffering; it rests in them on a Christian foundation because it is derived from love for humanity and from thoughts about humanity, and is entirely free from the egoism which is noticeable in dilettanti. You despise life because its meaning and its object are hidden just from you, and you are only afraid of your own death, while the real thinker is unhappy because the truth is hidden from all and he is afraid for all men. For instance, there is living not far from here the Crown forester, Ivan Alexandritch. He is a nice old man. At one time he was a teacher somewhere, and used to write something; the devil only knows what he was, but anyway he is a remarkably clever fellow and in philosophy he is A1. He has read a great deal and he is continually reading now. Well, we came across him lately in the Gruzovsky district. . . . They were laying the sleepers and rails just at the time. It’s not a difficult job, but Ivan Alexandritch, not being a specialist, looked at it as though it were a conjuring trick. It takes an experienced workman less than a minute to lay a sleeper and fix a rail on it. The workmen were in good form and really were working smartly and rapidly; one rascal in particular brought his hammer down with exceptional smartness on the head of the nail and drove it in at one blow, though the handle of the hammer was two yards or more in length and each nail was a foot long. Ivan Alexandritch watched the workmen a long time, was moved, and said to me with tears in his eyes:
“‘What a pity that these splendid men will die!’ Such pessimism I understand.”
“All that proves nothing and explains nothing,” said the student, covering himself up with a sheet; “all that is simply pounding liquid in a mortar. No one knows anything and nothing can be proved by words.”
He peeped out from under the sheet, lifted up his head and, frowning irritably, said quickly:
“One must be very naïve to believe in human words and logic and to ascribe any determining value to them. You can prove and disprove anything you like with words, and people will soon perfect the technique of language to such a point that they will prove with mathematical certainty that twice two is seven. I am fond of reading and listening, but as to believing, no thank you; I can’t, and I don’t want to. I believe only in God, but as for you, if you talk to me till the Second Coming and seduce another five hundred Kisothchkas, I shall believe in you only when I go out of my mind . . . . Goodnight.”
The student hid his head under the sheet and turned his face towards the wall, meaning by this action to let us know that he did not want to speak or listen. The argument ended at that.
Before going to bed the engineer and I went out of the hut, and I saw the lights once more.
“We have tired you out with our chatter,” said Ananyev, yawning and looking at the sky. “Well, my good sir! The only pleasure we have in this dull hole is drinking and philosophising. . . . What an embankment, Lord have mercy on us!” he said admiringly, as we approached the embankment; “it is more like Mount Ararat than an embankment.”
He paused for a little, then said: “Those lights remind the Baron of the Amalekites, but it seems to me that they are like the thoughts of man. . . . You know the thoughts of each individual man are scattered like that in disorder, stretch in a straight line towards some goal in the midst of the darkness and, without shedding light on anything, without lighting up the night, they vanish somewhere far beyond old age. But enough philosophising! It’s time to go bye-bye.”
When we were back in the hut the engineer began begging me to take his bed.
“Oh please!” he said imploringly, pressing both hands on his heart. “I entreat you, and don’t worry about me! I can sleep anywhere, and, besides, I am not going to bed just yet. Please do — it’s a favour!”
I agreed, undressed, and went to bed, while he sat down to the table and set to work on the plans.
“We fellows have no time for sleep,” he said in a low voice when I had got into bed and shut my eyes. “When a man has a wife and two children he can’t think of sleep. One must think now of food and clothes and saving for the future. And I have two of them, a little son and a daughter. . . . The boy, little rascal, has a jolly little face. He’s not six yet, and already he shows remarkable abilities, I assure you. . . . I have their photographs here, somewhere. . . . Ah, my children, my children!”
He rummaged among his papers, found their photographs, and began looking at them. I fell asleep.
I was awakened by the barking of Azorka and loud voices. Von Schtenberg with bare feet and ruffled hair was standing in the doorway dressed in his underclothes, talking loudly with some one . . . . It was getting light. A gloomy dark blue dawn was peeping in at the door, at the windows, and through the crevices in the hut walls, and casting a faint light on my bed, on the table with the papers, and on Ananyev. Stretched on the floor on a cloak, with a leather pillow under his head, the engineer lay asleep with his fleshy, hairy chest uppermost; he was snoring so loudly that I pitied the student from the bottom of my heart for having to sleep in the same room with him every night.
“Why on earth are we to take them?” shouted Von Schtenberg. “It has nothing to do with us! Go to Tchalisov! From whom do the cauldrons come?”
“From Nikitin . . .” a bass voice answered gruffly.
“Well, then, take them to Tchalisov. . . . That’s not in our department. What the devil are you standing there for? Drive on!”
“Your honour, we have been to Tchalisov already,” said the bass voice still more gruffly. “Yesterday we were the whole day looking for him down the line, and were told at his hut that he had gone to the Dymkovsky section. Please take them, your honour! How much longer are we to go carting them about? We go carting them on and on along the line, and see no end to it.”
“What is it?” Ananyev asked huskily, waking up and lifting his head quickly.
“They have brought some cauldrons from Nikitin’s,” said the student, “and he is begging us to take them. And what business is it of ours to take them?”
“Do be so kind, your honour, and set things right! The horses have been two days without food and the master, for sure, will be angry. Are we to take them back, or what? The railway ordered the cauldrons, so it ought to take them . . . .”
“Can’t you understand, you blockhead, that it has nothing to do with us? Go on to Tchalisov!”
“What is it? Who’s there?” Ananyev asked huskily again. “Damnation take them all,” he said, getting up and going to the door. “What is it?”
I dressed, and two minutes later went out of the hut. Ananyev and the student, both in their underclothes and barefooted, were angrily and impatiently explaining to a peasant who was standing before them bare-headed, with his whip in his hand, apparently not understanding them. Both faces looked preoccupied with workaday cares.
“What use are your cauldrons to me,” shouted Ananyev. “Am I to put them on my head, or what? If you can’t find Tchalisov, find his assistant, and leave us in peace!”
Seeing me, the student probably recalled the conversation of the previous night. The workaday expression vanished from his sleepy face and a look of mental inertia came into it. He waved the peasant off and walked away absorbed in thought.
It was a cloudy morning. On the line where the lights had been gleaming the night before, the workmen, just roused from sleep, were swarming. There was a sound of voices and the squeaking of wheelbarrows. The working day was beginning. One poor little nag harnessed with cord was already plodding towards the embankment, tugging with its neck, and dragging along a cartful of sand.
I began saying good-bye. . . . A great deal had been said in the night, but I carried away with me no answer to any question, and in the morning, of the whole conversation there remained in my memory, as in a filter, only the lights and the image of Kisotchka. As I got on the horse, I looked at the student and Ananyev for the last time, at the hysterical dog with the lustreless, tipsy-looking eyes, at the workmen flitting to and fro in the morning fog, at the embankment, at the little nag straining with its neck, and thought:
“There is no making out anything in this world.”
And when I lashed my horse and galloped along the line, and when a little later I saw nothing before me but the endless gloomy plain and the cold overcast sky, I recalled the questions which were discussed in the night. I pondered while the sun-scorched plain, the immense sky, the oak forest, dark on the horizon and the hazy distance, seemed saying to me:
“Yes, there’s no understanding anything in this world!”
The sun began to rise . . . .
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53