Circumstances by Abraham Cahan
TATYANA Markovna Lurie had just received the July number of Russian Thought, and was in a flurry. She felt like devouring
all the odd dozen of articles in the voluminous book at once; and the
patience failing her to cut the leaves, she fell to prying between
them on the rocking chair which she had drawn up close to one of the
two windows of the best room.
Altogether, the residence of the Luries consisted of three small
uncarpeted and scantily furnished apartments, and occupied a fourth of
the top floor of a veteran tenement house on Madison Street.
Ultimately, Tatyana Markovna settled on an extensive review of a
new translation of Guy de Maupassant's stories. But here again she
was burning to glance over the beginning, the middle, and the end of
the article simultaneously. And so she sat, feverishly skipping and
hopping over the lines, until a thought expressed by the critic, and
which struck her as identical with one she had set forth in a recent
discussion with her husband, finally fixed her attention and
overspread her youthful little face with radiance. She was
forerelishing her triumph when, upon Boris's return from work, she
would show him the passage; for in their debate he had made light of
her contention, and met her irresolute demurrer with the patronizing
and slightly ironical tone which he usually took while discussing book
questions with her.
But at the thought of Boris she suddenly remembered her soup, and
growing pale she put the magazine aside, and darted into the
semi-obscurity of the kitchen.
Tatyana, or Tanya, as her husband would fondly call her, was the
daughter of a merchant and Hebrew writer in Kieff, who usually lost
upon his literary ventures what he would save from his business. It
was not long after she had graduated from one of the female gymnasiums
of her native city that she met Boris Lurie, then a law student at
the University of St. Vladimir.
He was far from being what Russian college girls would call "a dear
little soul"; for he was tall and lank, awkwardly nearsighted, and
rather plain of feature, and the scar over his left eyebrow, too,
added anything but beauty to his looks. But for all that, the married
young women of his circle voted him decidedly interesting.
Tanya was attracted by his authoritative tone and rough sort of
impetuosity upon discussing social or literary topics; by his
reputation of being one of the best-read men at the university, as
well as a leading spirit in student "circles," and by the perfect
Russian way in which his coal-black hair fell over his commanding
forehead. As to him, he was charmed by that in her which had charmed
many a student before him: the delicate freshness of her pink
complexion, which, by the time we first find her in the Madison
Street tenement, had only partially faded; the enthusiastic smile
beaming from her every feature as she spoke; and the way her little
nose, the least bit retroussé, would look upward, and her beautiful
hazel eyes would assume a look of childlike curiosity, while she was
listening to her interlocutor.
They were married immediately after his graduation, with the
intention of settling in Kremenchug, where he had every prospect of a
large practice. But when he presented himself for admission to the
bar, as a "private attorney," he encountered obstacle after obstacle.
He tried another district, but with no better success. By that time
it had become clear that the government was bent upon keeping the Jews
out of the forensic profession, although it had not officially placed
it upon the list of vocations proscribed to their race.
After a year of peregrination and petitioning he came, a bundle of
nerves, to Jitomir to make a last attempt in the province of Volyn.
A high judiciary officer who received him rather politely made, in
the course of their interview, the semi-jocular remark that the way to
the bar lay through the baptismal font.
"Villain!" Lurie thundered, his fists clenched and his eyes
Luckily the functionary was a cool-headed old man who knew how to
avoid unsavory publicity. And so, when Lurie defiantly started to
stalk out of the room, he was not stopped.
A month or two later, Boris and Tanya arrived in New York.
IT was near seven o'clock when Boris came from the pearl-button
factory where he earned, at piecework, from six to seven dollars a
week. As Tanya heard his footsteps through the door she sprang to
her feet and, with a joyous gleam in her eye, she ran out to meet him
at the head of the stairs. In her delight she at once forgot the
After an affectionate greeting she said, with burlesque
supplication: "Don't get angry, Borya, but I am afraid I have flunked
on my soup again."
His fatigued smile expanded.
"The worst of it," she pursued, "is the fact that this time my
negligence resulted from something which is against you. Yes, I have
got something that will show you that Mr. Boris has not monopolized
all the wisdom in the world; that other people know something, too.
Yes, sir!" she beamingly concluded, in English.
"You must have received the July number, have you?" he burst out,
flushing with anticipated delight.
"Not your booseeness" (business), she replied in English, playfully
pronouncing the words as in Russian. "You know you can't get it
before supper is over; so what is the use asking?" she added, in the
tongue of her native country. With which she briskly busied herself
about the table and the stove, glowing with happiness, every inch of
her a woman in the long-awaited presence of the man she loves.
Boris's shabby working clothes, his few days' growth of beard and
general appearance of physical exhaustion vainly combined, as it were,
to extinguish the light of culture and intellectuality from his
looks; they only succeeded in adding the tinge of martyrdom to them.
As to Tatyana, she had got so far habituated to the change that she
was only occasionally aware of it. And when she was, it would move
her to pity and quicken her love for him. At such moments his poor
workaday clothes would appear to her as something akin to the prison
garb of the exiled student in Siberia.
"Let me just take a glance at the table of contents," he begged,
brokenly, washing himself at the sink.
"Then do you tell me what there is to read. Anything interesting?"
"Or is it that you begrudge me the few minutes' talk we have
together?" she resumed more earnestly, after a slight pause. "The
whole day I am all alone, and when he comes he plunges into some book
or other or falls asleep like a murdered man. All there remains is
the half hour at supper; so that, too, he would willingly deprive me
It was Tanya's standing grievance, and she would deliver herself of
it on the slightest provocation, often quite irrelevantly.
After supper she read to him the passage which she regarded as an
endorsement of her view upon Maupassant. When she had finished and
turned to him a face full of triumphant inquiry, she was rather
disappointed by the lukewarm readiness of his surrender.
"Oh, I see. It is rather an interesting point," he remarked
He was reclining on the stiff carpet-covered lounge in the front
room, while she was seated in the rocker, in front of him. It flashed
across her mind that such unusual tractability in him might augur
some concession to be exacted from her. She flew into a mild little
passion in advance, but made no inquiries, and only said, with
good-natured sarcasm: "Of course, once it is printed in Russian
Thought, it is 'rather an interesting point,' but when it was
only Tanya who made it, why then it was mere rubbish."
"You know I never said it was rubbish, Tanya," he returned
After a slight pause, he resumed listlessly: "Besides, I am sick of
these 'interesting points.' They have been the ruin of us, Tanychka;
they eat us up alive, these 'interesting points'—the deuce grab
them. If I cared less about 'interesting points'"—he articulated the
two words with venomous relish—"and a little more about your future
and mine, I might not now have to stick in a button factory."
She listened to him with an amused air, and when he paused, she
said flippantly: "We have heard it before."
"So much the worse for both of us. If you at least took a more
sober view of things! Seriously, Tanya, you ought to make life a
burden to me until I begin to do something to get out of this
devilish—of this villainous, unpardonable position."
"You should have married Cecilia Trotzky, then," she said,
Cecilia Trotzky was the virago among the educated Russo-Jewish
immigrants, who form a numerous colony within a colony in the Ghetto
of New York. She was described as a woman who had placed her husband
in a medical college, then made a point of sending him supperless to
bed every time he failed to study his lessons, and later, when he was
practicing, fixed the fees with his patients.
"Well, what is the use of joking?" he said gloomily, suppressing a
smile. "Every illiterate nonentity," he went on, letting the words
filter through his teeth with languid bitterness, every shop clerk,
who at home hardly knew there was such a thing as a university in the
world, goes to college here; and I am serving the community by
supplying it with pearl buttons for six dollars a week. Would this
were regular, at least! But it is not. I forgot to tell you, but we
may again have a slack season, Tanya. Oh! I will not let things go
on like this. If I don't begin to do something at once, I shall send
a bullet through my forehead. You may laugh, but this time it is not
idle talk. From this day on I shall be a different man. I have a
plan; I have considered everything carefully. If we wish to get rid
of our beggarly position, of this terrible feeling of insecurity and
need," he proceeded, as he raised himself to a sitting posture, his
voice gathering energy and his features becoming contorted with an
expression of disgust; "if we really mean to free ourselves from this
constant trembling lest I lose my job, from these excursions to the
pawn shops—laugh away! laugh away!—but, as I say, if we seriously
wish to make it possible for me to enter some college here, we must
send all literature and magazines and all gush about Russia to the
deuce, and do as others do. I have a splendid plan. Everything
depends upon you, Tanya."
At this the childlike look of curiosity came into her face. But he
seemed in no hurry to come to the point.
"People who hang about pawn shops have no right to 'interesting
points' and Guy de Maupassant and that sort of luxury. Poverty is a
crime! Well, but from now on, everything will be different. Listen,
Tanychka; the greatest trouble is the rent, is it not? It eats up the
larger part of my wages—that is, provided I work full time; and you
know how we tremble and are on the verge of insanity each time the
first of the month is drawing near. If we wish to achieve something,
we must be satisfied to pinch ourselves and to put up with some
inconvenience. Above all, we must not forget that I am a common
workingman. Well, every workingman's family around here keeps a
boarder or two; let us also take one. There is no way out of it,
He uttered the concluding words with studied nonchalance, but
without daring to look her in the face.
"Bor-ya!" she exclaimed, with a bewildered air.
Her manner angered him.
"There, now! I expected as much!" he said irascibly. And
continuing in softer accents, he forced her to listen to the details
of his project. The boarder's pay would nearly come up to their
rent. If they lived more economically than now they could save up
enough for his first year's tuition at a New York college, or, as a
steppingstone, for a newspaper stand. Free from worry about their
rent, he would be in a fitter mood to study English after work. In
course of time he would know the language enough to teach it to the
uneducated workingmen of the Jewish quarter; and so he would be
liberated from his factory yoke, as many an immigrant of his class had
been. Dalsky, a friend of theirs, and a former classmate of Boris's,
who was studying medicine, earned his living by giving such lessons in
English, and, by the way, he was now looking for a lodging. Why
should they not offer him their parlor? They could do with the
kitchen and the bedroom. Besides, Dalsky would be one of the family,
and would have only partial use of the parlor.
As the plan assumed a personified form in her mind—the face of a
definite boarder—her realization of its horrors was so keen that she
shut her ears and begged Boris to take pity on her and desist.
Whereupon he flew into a rage and charged her with nursing
aristocratic instincts which in their present position they could not
afford. She retorted, tearfully, that she was ready to put up with
any amount of additional work and discomfort, but that she did not
care to have a "constant cataract on the eye."
"God knows you give me little enough of your company, as it is. I
must have tired you capitally, if you seek somebody to talk to and to
save you from being alone with me."
"You know it is the rankest nonsense you are saying!" he flamed
out. "And what is the use crying like that? As if I took a delight
in the whole affair! Cry to our circumstances, not to me.
Circumstances, circumstances, Tanya!" he repeated, with pleading
Little by little he relented, however, and eventually he promised
never to mention the matter again, although inwardly both of them felt
that he would. He sat by her side on the lounge, fondling her little
hands and murmuring love, when suddenly bending upon him an imploring
face, she said, in a tremulous, tearful voice: "Borinka, dear! I
shall also go to some factory. We will get along without boarders,"
with which she fell upon his shoulder in a fit of heart-rending
He clasped her to him, whispering: "You know, my angel, that I
would commit suicide before letting you go to work. Don't worry, my
joy, we will get along without boarders."
"I want no strangers to hang around the house all the time; I want
to be with you alone, I want nobody, nobody, nobody else in the
world!" she said, pressing him tightly to her heart.
On the following evening, as Boris was musingly trudging on his
way home, after work, it suddenly came over him that his manner with
the foreman of the shop was assuming a rather obsequious nature. Work
was scarce, and the distribution of it was, to a considerable extent,
a matter of favoritism. He recalled how the Czech foreman, half tipsy
with beer, had been making some stupid efforts at being witty, and
how he, Boris Lurie, standing by, in greedy expectation of work, had
smiled a broad, ingratiating smile of approbation. At the moment he
had been so far merged in the surroundings and in his anxiety about
work that he had not been aware of doing anything unnatural. But now,
as it all came back to him, with inexorable vividness, and he beheld
his own wretched, artificial smile, he was overcome with disgust.
"Vil-lain!" he broke out at himself, gnashing his teeth; and at the
next moment he was at the point of bursting into tears for self-pity.
To think of him, who had not hesitated to call the president of a
Russian court "rogue" to his face, simpering like a miserable
time-server at every stupidity and nastiness of a drunken brute! Is
that what circumstances had made of him?
He reached home out of temper, and before supper was well over he
reopened the discussion of his scheme. It again led to a slight
quarrel, which was again made up by his surrender, as in the previous
A few days later he was "laid off" for a fortnight.
To eke out their rent they had to forego meat. For several
consecutive days they lived on bread and butter and coffee. Boris
grew extremely nervous and irritable.
One morning, coming back from the pawn shops, Boris, pale and
solemn, quietly laid on the kitchen table the package which he had
under his arm.
"They wouldn't take it," he said almost in a whisper. "It is not
worth anything, they say."
Tanya only raised at him a meek glance, and went on with her work.
Boris fell to pacing the front room. They could not speak.
Presently she stepped up to his side and said, with rueful
tenderness: "Well, what is the good of grieving, Borya?"
Their hands clasped tightly, and their eyes fixed themselves
forlornly on the floor.
"I have promised Dalsky an answer," he said, after a little.
"Let him move in," she returned lugubriously, with a slight shrug
of her shoulder, as if submitting to fate.
It was about nine in the morning, and Dalsky, slowly pacing the
front room, Quiz-Compend in hand, was reviewing his
lesson. He had a certain dignity and nobleness of feature which
consorted well with the mysterious pallor of his oval face, and to
which, by the way, his moral complexion gave him perfect right. Then,
too, his middle-sized form was exceedingly well proportioned. But
for the rest, his looks, like everything else about him, presented
nothing to produce an impression.
Presently he deliberately closed the book, carefully placed it on
his whatnot, and, his eye falling upon the little flowerpot on the
window, he noiselessly stepped into the kitchen, where Tanya was
ironing some trifles on the dining table.
"What are you looking for, Monsieur Dalsky?" she inquired amiably,
turning her flushed face to the boarder, who was then gazing about
"Nothing—do not trouble yourself, Tatyana Markovna—I have got
it," he answered politely, resting the soft look of his good gray
eyes at her, and showing the enameled cup which he was carrying to
the water tap.
"It is high time to give my flowerpot its breakfast; it must have
grown hungry," he remarked unobtrusively, retracing his steps to the
front room, with the cup half filled with water.
"It gets good board with you, your little flowerpot," Tanya
returned, in her plaintive soprano, speaking through the open window,
which sometimes served to separate and sometimes to connect the
kitchen and the front room. "By the way, it is time for its master to
have its breakfast, too. Shall I set the table, Monsieur Dalsky?"
"All rightissimo!" answered the student jestingly, with the
remotest suggestion of a chivalrous smile and a bow of his head.
As he ate, she made a playful attempt at reading the portly
textbook, which he had brought with him. Whenever she happened to
mispronounce an English word, he would set her right, in a
matter-of-fact way; whereupon she accepted his correction with a
slight blush and a smile, somewhat bashful and somewhat humorous.
Hardly a fortnight had elapsed since Dalsky had installed himself
and his scanty effects at the Luries', yet he seemed to have grown
into the family, and the three felt as if they had dwelt together all
their lives. His presence in the house produced a change that was at
once striking and imperceptible. When free from college and from
teaching, an hour or two in the morning and a few hours during the
afternoon, he would stay at home studying or reading, humming, between
whiles, some opera tune, or rolling up a cigarette and smoking it as
he paced up and down the floor—all of which he did softly,
unobtrusively, with a sort of pleasing fluency. Often he would bring
from the street some useful or decorative trifle—a matchbox, a
towel-ring, a bit of bric-a-brac for the mantelpiece, a flowerpot. At
supper he, Boris and Tanya would have a friendly chat over the
contents of the newspapers, or the gossip of the colony, or some
Russian book, although Boris was apt to monopolize the time for his
animadversions upon the occurrences in the pearl-button shop, which,
both Tanya and Dalsky were beginning to think rather too minute and
uninteresting. "Poor fellow; the pearl-button environment has eaten
him up," the medical student would say to himself, with heartfelt
commiseration. As to his own college, he would scarcely ever refer to
it. After supper he usually left for his private lessons, after which
he would perhaps drop in at the Russian Students' Club; and altogether
his presence did not in the least encroach upon the privacy of the
Luries' life, while, on the other hand, it seemed to have breathed an
easier and pleasanter atmosphere into their home.
"Well, was there any ground for making so much ado?" Boris once
said triumphantly. "We are as much alone as ever, and you are not
lonely all day, into the bargain."
Dalsky had come to America with the definite purpose of studying
and then practicing medicine. He had landed penniless, yet in a little
over two years, and before his friends in the colony had noticed it,
he was in a position to pay his first year's tuition and to meet all
the other bills of his humble, but well-ordered and, to him,
He was a normally constituted and well-regulated young man of
twenty-five, a year or two Lurie's junior. There was nothing bright
nor deep about him, but he was seldom guilty of a gross want of tact.
He would be the last man to neglect his task on account of a ball or
an interesting book, yet he was never classed among the "grinds." He
was endowed with a light touch for things as well as for men, and
with that faculty for ranking high in his class, which, as we all
know, does not always precede distinction in the school of life. This
sort of people give the world very little, ask of it still less, but
get more than they give.
As he neither intruded too far into other people's souls, nor
allowed others too deep into his own confidence, he was at peace with
himself and everybody else in the colony.
Three months more had passed. The button factory was busy.
Boris's hard, uncongenial toil was deepening its impress upon him.
When he came from work he would be so completely fagged out that an
English grammar was out of the question.
He grew more morose every day.
Tanya was becoming irritable with him.
One afternoon after six she was pensively rocking and humming a
Russian folksong, one of her little white hands resting on an open
Russian book in her lap. Dalsky was out, for it was one of those
days when he would stay at college until six and come home at about
the same time as Boris.
Presently she was awakened from her reverie by the sound of
footsteps. The door opened before she had time to make out whose they
were, and as her eye fell upon Boris, a shadow of disappointment
flitted across her brow.
Still, at the sight of his overworked face, her heart was wrung
with pity, and she greeted him with a commiserating, nervous,
exaggerated sort of cordiality.
After a little he took to expounding a plan, bearing upon their
affairs, which he had conceived while at work. She started to listen
with real interest, but her attention soon wandered away, and as he
went on she gazed at him blankly and nodded irrelevant assent.
"What is the use of talking, since you are not listening anyway?"
he said, mildly.
She was about to say softly, "Excuse me, Borya, say it again, I'll
listen," but she said resentfully, "Suit yourself!"
His countenance fell.
"Any letters from home?" he demanded, after a while, to break an
"No," she replied, with an impatient jerk of her shoulder.
He gave a perplexed shrug, and took up his grammar.
When Dalsky came he found them plainly out of sorts with each
other. Tanya returned his "Good health to you," only partly relaxing
the frown on her face. Boris raised his black head from his book; his
brusque "Good health, Dalsky!" had scarcely left his lips when his
short-sighted eyes again nearly touched the open grammar.
"You must excuse me; I am really sorry to have kept you waiting,"
the boarder apologized, methodically taking off his overcoat and
gently brushing its velvet collar before hanging it up, "but I was
unavoidably detained at the lecture, and then I met Stern, and you
know how hard it is to shake oneself free from him."
"It is not late at all," Tanya observed, unnecessarily retaining a
vestige of the cloud upon her countenance. "What does he want,
Stern? Some new scheme again?"
"You hit it there, Tatyana Markovna; and, by the way, you two are
to play first violin in it."
"I?" asked Tanya, her countenance suddenly blazing up with confused
animation. "What is it?" Boris laid down his book and pricked up his
"He has unearthed some remarkable dialogue in Little Russian—you
know everything Stern comes across is remarkable. Well, and he wants
the two of you to recite it or act it—that's your business—at the
New Year's gathering."
"What an idiotic plan!" was Boris's verdict, which his countenance
"Who else is going to participate?" inquired Tanya.
Fixing his mild gray eyes on his youthful landlady, Dalsky
proceeded to describe the prospective entertainment in detail.
Presently he grew absent-minded and lost the thread of a sentence.
He noticed that, as his listener's eyes met his, her gaze became
unsteady, wandering, as though she were looked out of countenance.
She confusedly transferred her glance to his fresh, clean-shaven
face and then to his neatly tied scarf and immaculate shirt front.
Boris wore a blue flannel shirt, and, as usual in the middle of the
week, his face was overgrown with what he jocosely called underbrush.
As he had warmed up to Dalsky's subject and rose to his feet to ply
him with questions, the contrast which the broad, leaf-shaped gas
flame illuminated was striking. It was one between a worn, wretched
workingman and a trim, fresh-looking college student.
Supper passed in animated conversation, as usual. When it was over
and the boarder was gone to his pupils, Boris, reclining on the
lounge, took up his Dombey and Son and Alexandroff's
Dictionary. In a quarter of an hour he was fast asleep and snoring.
It attracted the attention of Tanya, who sat near by, reading her
Russian novel. She let the book rest on her lap and fell to
contemplating her husband. His sprawling posture and his snores at
once revolted her and filled her with pity. She looked at the scar
over his eyebrow, and it pained her; and yet, somehow, she could not
divert her eyes from it. At the same time she felt a vague
reminiscence stirring in her mind. What was it? She seemed to have
seen or heard or read something somewhere which had a certain bearing
upon the painful feeling which she was now nursing, in spite of
herself, as she was eyeing the scar over Boris's eyebrow. What could
A strenuous mental effort brought to her mind the passage in
Tolstoy's novel where Anna Karenina, after having fallen under
Vronsky's charm, is met by her husband upon her return to St.
Petersburg, whereupon the first thing that strikes her about him is
the uncouth hugeness of his ears.
It was not the first time her thoughts had run in this direction.
She had repeatedly caught herself dwelling upon such apparently silly
subjects as the graceful trick which Dalsky had in knocking off the
ashes of his cigarette, or the way he would look about the cupboard
for the cup with which he watered his plant, or, again, the soft ring
of his voice as he said, "Tatyana Markovna!"—the thoroughly Russian
form of address, not much in vogue in the colony. Once, upon
touching his flower on the window sill, she became conscious of a
thrill, deliciously disquieting and as if whispering something to her.
And yet, as the case of Anna Karenina now came to her mind, as an
illustration of her own position, it smote her consciousness as a
"And so I am a married woman in love with another man!" was her
first thought; and with her soul divided between a benumbing terror
and the sweet titillation produced by a sense of tasting forbidden
fruit, she involuntarily repeated the mental exclamation: "Yes, I am a
married woman in love with another man!"
And with a painful, savage sort of relish she went on staring at
her husband's scar and listening to his fatigued breathing. There was
a moment when a wave of sympathy suddenly surged to her heart and
nearly moved her to tears; but at the next moment it came back to her
that it was at Boris s insistence, and in spite of her sobs, that the
boarder had been taken into the house; whereupon her heart swelled
with a furious sense of revenge. The image of Dalsky floated past her
mental vision and agitated her soul with a novel feeling. When a
moment or two after she threw a glance at the looking glass she seemed
a stranger to herself.
"Is this Tanya? Is this the respectable, decorous young woman that
she has been?" she seemed to soliloquize. "What nonsense; why not?
What have I done? Dalsky himself does not even suspect anything." It
seemed as if she were listening to the depth of her own soul for a
favorable answer to her question, and as if the favorable answer did
She became fearful of herself, and, with another sudden flow of
affection for her husband, she stepped up to his side to wake him; but
as she came into close contact with him, the wave of tenderness ebbed
away and she left the room.
"It is nonsense," she decided; "still, I must invent some pretext
for insisting upon his removal. Then I'll forget him, anyway.
Whether she would have had the courage to carry out her resolve or
not, is not known, for the task soon became superfluous.
A few days later, as Dalsky was drawing on his overcoat to leave
for his lessons, he said, rather awkwardly, addressing himself to
both, while looking at Boris: "By the way, I have to tell you
something. I am afraid that devilish college will make it impossible
for me to live downtown."
Both Boris and Tanya grew pale.
"You see," Dalsky pursued, "the lectures and the work in the
dissecting room are so scattered throughout the day that I don't see
my way out unless I get a room in the neighborhood of the college."
And to talk himself out of the embarrassing position, he went on to
explain college affairs with unnecessary detail.
As a matter of fact, however, his whole explanation, although not
based on an untruth, was not the real cause of his determination to
leave the Luries. He had known Boris in his better days, and now
sympathized with him and Tanya keenly. The frequent outbreaks of
temper between husband and wife, and the cloud which now almost
constantly hung over the house, heavily bore down upon him as a
friend, and made his life there extremely uncomfortable. At last he
had perceived the roving, nonplussed look in her eyes as their
glances met. Once become observant in this direction, he noticed a
thousand and one other little things which seemed to confirm his
suspicion. "Can it be that she is interested in me?" he said to
himself. For a moment the thought caressed his vanity and conjured up
the image of Tanya in a novel aspect, which lured him and spoke of
the possibility of reciprocating her feeling—of an adventure.
It was on the very next day that he announced his intention to
The house became so dreary to Tanya that her loneliness during the
day frightened her, though the presence of Boris irritated her more
than ever. She felt as if some member of the household had died.
Wherever she turned she beheld some trace of the student; worse than
anything else was the window plant, which Dalsky had left behind him.
She avoided looking at it, lest it should thrill her with a crushing
sense of her desolation, of her bereavement, as it were. Yet, when
she was about to remove it, she had not the heart to do it. She
strayed about like a shadow, and often felt as though it were enough
to touch her to make her melt away in tears.
One evening, after an unbearable silence, succeeding a sharp
altercation, Boris asked, pleadingly: "What has become of you, Tanya?
I simply fail to recognize you."
"If you understand, then it is foolish to ask," she retorted, with
a smile of mild sarcasm, eyeing the floor.
"I understand nothing." But as the words left his lips, something
suddenly dawned upon him which made his blood run cold. An array of
situations which had produced an impression upon him, but which had
been lost upon his consciousness, now uprose in his mind. He grew
"Well, so much the worse," said she.
"Tell me, and I will know," he rejoined, with studied irony, while
in his heart he was praying Heaven that his misgivings might prove
"Oh! I think you do understand; you are not so blind." Her voice
now sounded alien in his ears, and she herself seemed to him suddenly
changed—as if she had in one moment become transmuted into an older,
wiser, sterner, and more beautiful, fiercely beautiful, woman.
"I swear to you that I do not know anything."
"Very well, then; I shall write it," she said, with a sudden
determination, rising to produce paper, pen, and ink.
"All right," he said, in abject cowardice, with a meaningless
She wrote: "I am your best friend in the world. I have been
thinking, and thinking, and have arrived at the conclusion that the
best thing for us to do is to part for a time. I do not blame
anybody but myself, but I cannot help it. I have no moral right to
live with you as long as my mind is constantly occupied with somebody
else. I have struggled hard to keep out the thoughts of him, but it
is of no avail."
The phlegmatic ticking of the cheap alarm clock was singing a
solemn accompaniment to the impressive stillness of the surroundings.
Boris, gazing at the corner of the room with a faint, stolid smile,
was almost trembling. Tanya's face was burning with excitement. She
went on: "I repeat, I have only myself to blame, and I am doing my
best to struggle out of this state of mind. But while it lasts, my
false, my dishonest position in this house aggravates things. I wish
to be alone, for a while, at least. Then, under new conditions, I
hope I shall soon get over it. For the sake of everything that is
good, do not attempt to persuade me to stay. It is all thought out
and decided. Nor do you need offer to support me. I have no right to
it, and will not accept it under any circumstances. I can work and
earn my own living. I am prepared to bear the cross. Besides, shall
I be the only Russian college woman to work in an American factory?
Above all, do not let anybody know anything—the person to whom I
have referred not excluded, of course. I am sure he does not
suspect anything. Do not let him surmise the cause of it all, if you
do not wish to see my corpse. We can invent some explanation."
It was the early part of a bleak wintry evening. The interior of
Silberman's shop, crowded with men and women and their sewing
machines, every bit of space truckled up with disorderly piles of
finished shirts or bundles of stuff, was dappled with cheerless
gaslight. The spacious, barn-like loft rang and trembled with a
chaos of mournful and merry song, vying with the insolent rattle of
the machines. There were synagogue airs in the chorus and airs of the
Jewish stage; popular American airs, airs from the dancing schools,
and time-honored airs imported from Russia, Poland, Galicia, Roumania,
Only Tanya was not singing. Bent upon her machine, in a remote
corner, she was practicing a straight stitch upon some cuttings. She
was making marked progress, and, flushed with her success, had almost
grown oblivious of the heavy lump at her heart, and the pricking pain
which seemed to fill her every limb. Presently the girl next her,
who had been rapturously singing "I have a girl in Baltimore" in a
sort of cross-tune between the song's own melody and the highly
melancholy strains of a Hebrew prayer, suddenly switched off into one
of the most Russian of Russian folksongs:
By the little brook,
By the little bridge,
Grass was growing
This she sang with such an un-Russian flavor, and pronounced the
words with such a strong Yiddish accent, and so illiterately, that
Tanya gnashed her teeth as if touched to the quick, and closed her
eyes and ears. The surroundings again grew terrible to her.
Commencement Day at the Kieff Gymnasium loomed before her
imagination, and she beheld herself one of a group of blooming young
maidens, all in fresh brown dresses with black aprons, singing that
very song, but in sturdy, ringing, charming Russian. A cruel anguish
choked her. Everybody and everything about her was so strange, so
hideously hostile, so exile-like! She once more saw the little home
where she had recently reigned. "How do I happen here?" she asked
herself. She thought of Boris, and was tempted to run back to him, to
fly into his arms and beg him to establish a home again. But
presently came the image of Dalsky, neat, polite, dignified, and
noiseless; and she once more fell to her machine, and with a furious
cruelty for herself, she went on working the treadle. Whereupon her
mind gradually occupied itself with the New Year's entertainment, with
the way the crowd would be commenting upon her separation, and above
all, with her failure to appear on the platform to recite in Little
Russian and to evoke a storm of applause in the presence of Dalsky.
At that time Boris was on his way from work, in the direction of
Madison Street. It was the second day after he had cleared the rooms
by selling the furniture and cooking utensils to the neighbors, who
rushed at them like flies at a drop of molasses. But he still had his
books and some other effects to remove. When he entered the rooms,
there was light enough from the street to show the unwonted darkness
in them. A silvery streak fell upon the black aperture which had the
day before been filled with the pipe of a little parlor stove. This
and the weird gloom of the rest of the apartment overwhelmed him with
distress and terror. He hastened to light the gas. The dead
emptiness of the three rooms which so recently had been full of life,
the floors littered with traces of Tanya and their life
together—every corner and recess had a look of doleful, mysterious
For the first time he seemed to realize what had befallen him; and
for the first time in many years he burst into tears. Hot tears they
were, and they fell in vehement drops, as, leaning his wearied form
against the doorpost and burying his face in his arm, he whispered
brokenly, "Tanychka! Tanychka!"