The Beauties by Anton Chekov
Translated by Constance Garrett
I REMEMBER, when I was a high school boy in the fifth or sixth
class, I was driving with my grandfather from the village of
Bolshoe Kryepkoe in the Don region to Rostov-on-the-Don. It was a
sultry, languidly dreary day of August. Our eyes were glued
together, and our mouths were parched from the heat and the dry
burning wind which drove clouds of dust to meet us; one did not
want to look or speak or think, and when our drowsy driver, a
Little Russian called Karpo, swung his whip at the horses and
lashed me on my cap, I did not protest or utter a sound, but
only, rousing myself from half-slumber, gazed mildly and
dejectedly into the distance to see whether there was a village
visible through the dust. We stopped to feed the horses in a big
Armenian village at a rich Armenian's whom my grandfather knew.
Never in my life have I seen a greater caricature than that
Armenian. Imagine a little shaven head with thick overhanging
eyebrows, a beak of a nose, long gray mustaches, and a wide
mouth with a long cherry-wood chibouk sticking out of it. This
little head was clumsily attached to a lean hunch-back carcass
attired in a fantastic garb, a short red jacket, and full bright
blue trousers. This figure walked straddling its legs and
shuffling with its slippers, spoke without taking the chibouk out
of its mouth, and behaved with truly Armenian dignity, not
smiling, but staring with wide-open eyes and trying to take as
little notice as possible of its guests.
There was neither wind nor dust in the Armenian's rooms, but it
was just as unpleasant, stifling, and dreary as in the steppe and
on the road. I remember, dusty and exhausted by the heat, I sat
in the corner on a green box. The unpainted wooden walls, the
furniture, and the floors colored with yellow ocher smelt of dry
wood baked by the sun. Wherever I looked there were flies and
flies and flies. . . . Grandfather and the Armenian were talking
about grazing, about manure, and about oats. .
. . I knew that they would be a good hour getting the samovar;
that grandfather would be not less than an hour drinking his tea,
and then would lie down to sleep for two or three hours; that I
should waste a quarter of the day waiting, after which there
would be again the heat, the dust, the jolting cart. I heard the
muttering of the two voices, and it began to seem to me that I
had been seeing the Armenian, the cupboard with the crockery, the
flies, the windows with the burning sun beating on them, for
ages and ages, and should only cease to see them in the far-off
future, and I was seized with hatred for the steppe, the sun, the
flies.. . .
A Little Russian peasant woman in a kerchief brought in a tray of
tea-things, then the samovar. The Armenian went slowly out into
the passage and shouted: "Mashya, come and pour out tea! Where
are you, Mashya?"
Hurried footsteps were heard, and there came into the room a girl
of sixteen in a simple cotton dress and a white kerchief. As she
washed the crockery and poured out the tea, she was standing with
her back to me, and all I could see was that she was of a
slender figure, barefooted, and that her little bare heels were
covered by long trousers.
The Armenian invited me to have tea. Sitting down to the table, I
glanced at the girl, who was handing me a glass of tea, and felt
all at once as though a wind were blowing over my soul and
blowing away all the impressions of the day with their dust and
dreariness. I saw the bewitching features of the most beautiful
face I have ever met in real life or in my dreams. Before me
stood a beauty, and I recognized that at the first glance as I
should have recognized lightning.
I am ready to swear that Masha -- or, as her father called her,
Mashya -- was a real beauty, but I don't know how to prove it. It
sometimes happens that clouds are huddled together in disorder on
the horizon, and the sun hiding behind them colors them and the
sky with tints of every possible shade--crimson, orange, gold,
lilac, muddy pink; one cloud is like a monk, another like a fish,
a third like a Turk in a turban. The glow of sunset enveloping a
third of the sky gleams on the cross on the church, flashes on
the windows of the manor house, is reflected in the river and the
puddles, quivers on the trees; far, far away against the
background of the sunset, a flock of wild ducks is flying
homewards. . . . And the boy herding the cows, and the surveyor
driving in his chaise over the dam, and the gentleman out for a
walk, all gaze at the sunset, and every one of them thinks it
terribly beautiful, but no one knows or can say in what its
I was not the only one to think the Armenian girl beautiful. My
grandfather, an old man of seventy, gruff and indifferent to
women and the beauties of nature, looked caressingly at Masha for
a full minute, and asked:
"Is that your daughter, Avert Nazaritch?"
"Yes, she is my daughter," answered the Armenian.
"A fine young lady," said my grandfather approvingly.
An artist would have called the Armenian girl's beauty classical
and severe, it was just that beauty, the contemplation of which
-- God knows why!-- inspires in one the conviction that one is
seeing correct features; that hair, eyes, nose, mouth, neck,
bosom, and every movement of the young body all go together in
one complete harmonious accord in which nature has not blundered
over the smallest line. You fancy for some reason that the
ideally beautiful woman must have such a nose as Masha's,
straight and slightly aquiline, just such great dark eyes, such
long lashes, such a languid glance; you fancy that her black
curly hair and eyebrows go with the soft white tint of her brow
and cheeks as the green reeds go with the quiet stream. Masha's
white neck and her youthful bosom were not fully developed, but
you fancy the sculptor would need a great creative genius to mold
them. You gaze, and little by little the desire comes over you to
say to Masha something extraordinarily pleasant, sincere,
beautiful, as beautiful as she herself was.
At first I felt hurt and abashed that Masha took no notice of me,
but was all the time looking down; it seemed to me as though a
peculiar atmosphere, proud and happy, separated her from me and
jealously screened her from my eyes.
"That's because I am covered with dust," I thought, "am sunburnt,
and am still a boy."
But little by little I forgot myself, and gave myself up entirely
to the consciousness of beauty. I thought no more now of the
dreary steppe, of the dust, no longer heard the buzzing of the
flies, no longer tasted the tea, and felt nothing except that a
beautiful girl was standing only the other side of the table.
I felt this beauty rather strangely. It was not desire, nor
ecstacy, nor enjoyment that Masha excited in me, but a painful
though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as
a dream. For some reason I felt sorry for myself, for my
grandfather and for the Armenian, even for the girl herself, and
I had a feeling as though we all four had lost something
important and essential to life which we should never find again.
My grandfather, too, grew melancholy; he talked no more about
manure or about oats, but sat silent, looking pensively at
After tea my grandfather lay down for a nap while I went out of
the house into the porch. The house, like all the houses in the
Armenian village stood in the full sun; there was not a tree, not
an awning, no shade. The Armenian's great courtyard, overgrown
with goosefoot and wild mallows, was lively and full of gaiety in
spite of the great heat. Threshing was going on behind one of the
low hurdles which intersected the big yard here and there. Round
a post stuck into the middle of the threshing-floor ran a dozen
horses harnessed side by side, so that they formed one long
radius. A Little Russian in a long waistcoat and full trousers
was walking beside them, cracking a whip and shouting in a tone
that sounded as though he were jeering at the horses and showing
off his power over them.
"A--a--a, you damned brutes! . . . A--a--a, plague take you! Are
The horses, sorrel, white, and piebald, not understanding why
they were made to run round in one place and to crush the wheat
straw, ran unwillingly as though with effort, swinging their
tails with an offended air. The wind raised up perfect clouds
of golden chaff from under their hoofs and carried it away far
beyond the hurdle. Near the tall fresh stacks peasant women were
swarming with rakes, and carts were moving, and beyond the stacks
in another yard another dozen similar horses were running round
a post, and a similar Little Russian was cracking his whip and
jeering at the horses.
The steps on which I was sitting were hot; on the thin rails and
here and there on the window-frames sap was oozing out of the
wood from the heat; red ladybirds were huddling together in the
streaks of shadow under the steps and under the shutters.
The sun was baking me on my head, on my chest, and on my back,
but I did not notice it, and was conscious only of the thud of
bare feet on the uneven floor in the passage and in the rooms
behind me. After clearing away the tea-things, Masha ran down
the steps, fluttering the air as she passed, and like a bird flew
into a little grimy outhouse--I suppose the kitchen--from which
came the smell of roast mutton and the sound of angry talk in
Armenian. She vanished into the dark doorway, and in her place
there appeared on the threshold an old bent, red-faced Armenian
woman wearing green trousers. The old woman was angry and was
scolding someone. Soon afterwards Masha appeared in the doorway,
flushed with the heat of the kitchen and carrying a big black
loaf on her shoulder; swaying gracefully under the weight of the
bread, she ran across the yard to the threshing-floor, darted
over the hurdle, and, wrapt in a cloud of golden chaff, vanished
behind the carts. The Little Russian who was driving the horses
lowered his whip, sank into silence, and gazed for a minute in
the direction of the carts. Then when the Armenian girl darted
again by the horses and leaped over the hurdle, he followed her
with his eyes, and shouted to the horses in a tone as though he
were greatly disappointed:
"Plague take you, unclean devils!"
And all the while I was unceasingly hearing her bare feet, and
seeing how she walked across the yard with a grave, preoccupied
face. She ran now down the steps, swishing the air about me, now
into the kitchen, now to the threshing-floor, now through the
gate, and I could hardly turn my head quickly enough to watch
And the oftener she fluttered by me with her beauty, the more
acute became my sadness. I felt sorry both for her and for myself
and for the Little Russian, who mournfully watched her every time
she ran through the cloud of chaff to the carts. Whether it was
envy of her beauty, or that I was regretting that the girl was
not mine, and never would be, or that I was a stranger to her; or
whether I vaguely felt that her rare beauty was accidental,
unnecessary, and, like everything on earth, of short duration;
or whether, perhaps, my sadness was that peculiar feeling which
is excited in man by the contemplation of real beauty, God only
The three hours of waiting passed unnoticed. It seemed to me that
I had not had time to look properly at Masha when Karpo drove up
to the river, bathed the horse, and began to put it in the
shafts. The wet horse snorted with pleasure and kicked his
hoofs against the shafts. Karpo shouted to it: "Ba--ack!" My
grandfather woke up. Masha opened the creaking gates for us, we
got into the chaise and drove out of the yard. We drove in
silence as though we were angry with one another.
When, two or three hours later, Rostov and Nahitchevan appeared
in the distance, Karpo, who had been silent the whole time,
looked round quickly, and said:
"A fine wench, that at the Armenian's."
And he lashed his horses.
Another time, after I had become a student, I was traveling by
rail to the south. It was May. At one of the stations, I believe
it was between Byelgorod and Harkov, I got out of the tram to
walk about the platform.
The shades of evening were already lying on the station garden,
on the platform, and on the fields; the station screened off the
sunset, but on the topmost clouds of smoke from the engine, which
were tinged with rosy light, one could see the sun had not yet
As I walked up and down the platform I noticed that the greater
number of the passengers were standing or walking near a
second-class compartment, and that they looked as though some
celebrated person were in that compartment. Among the curious
whom I met near this compartment I saw, however, an artillery
officer who had been my fellow-traveler, an intelligent, cordial,
and sympathetic fellow--as people mostly are whom we meet on our
travels by chance and with whom we are not long acquainted.
"What are you looking at there?" I asked.
He made no answer, but only indicated with his eyes a feminine
figure. It was a young girl of seventeen or eighteen, wearing a
Russian dress, with her head bare and a little shawl flung
carelessly on one shoulder; not a passenger, but I suppose a
sister or daughter of the station-master. She was standing near
the carriage window, talking to an elderly woman who was in the
train. Before I had time to realize what I was seeing, I was
suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling I had once experienced in
the Armenian village.
The girl was remarkably beautiful, and that was unmistakable to
me and to those who were looking at her as I was.
If one is to describe her appearance feature by feature, as the
practice is, the only really lovely thing was her thick wavy fair
hair, which hung loose with a black ribbon tied round her head;
all the other features were either irregular or very ordinary.
Either from a peculiar form of coquettishness, or from
short-sightedness, her eyes were screwed up, her nose had an
undecided tilt, her mouth was small, her profile was feebly and
insipidly drawn, her shoulders were narrow and undeveloped for
her age -- and yet the girl made the impression of being really
beautiful, and looking at her, I was able to feel convinced that
the Russian face does not need strict regularity in order to be
lovely; what is more, that if instead of her turn-up nose the
girl had been given a different one, correct and plastically
irreproachable like the Armenian girl's, I fancy her face would
have lost all its charm from the change.
Standing at the window talking, the girl, shrugging at the
evening damp, continually looking round at us, at one moment put
her arms akimbo, at the next raised her hands to her head to
straighten her hair, talked, laughed, while her face at one
moment wore an expression of wonder, the next of horror, and I
don't remember a moment when her face and body were at rest. The
whole secret and magic of her beauty lay just in these tiny,
infinitely elegant movements, in her smile, in the play of her
face, in her rapid glances at us, in the combination of the
subtle grace of her movements with her youth, her freshness, the
purity of her soul that sounded in her laugh and voice, and with
the weakness we love so much in children, in birds, in fawns,
and in young trees.
It was that butterfly's beauty so in keeping with waltzing,
darting about the garden, laughter and gaiety, and incongruous
with serious thought, grief, and repose; and it seemed as though
a gust of wind blowing over the platform, or a fall of rain,
would be enough to wither the fragile body and scatter the
capricious beauty like the pollen of a flower.
"So--o! . . ." the officer muttered with a sigh when, after the
second bell, we went back to our compartment.
And what that "So--o" meant I will not undertake to decide.
Perhaps he was sad, and did not want to go away from the beauty
and the spring evening into the stuffy train; or perhaps he, like
me, was unaccountably sorry for the beauty, for himself, and for
me, and for all the passengers, who were listlessly and
reluctantly sauntering back to their compartments. As we passed
the station window, at which a pale, red-haired telegraphist with
upstanding curls and a faded, broad-cheeked face was sitting
beside his apparatus, the officer heaved a sigh and said:
"I bet that telegraphist is in love with that pretty girl. To
live out in the wilds under one roof with that ethereal creature
and not fall in love is beyond the power of man. And what a
calamity, my friend! what an ironical fate, to be stooping,
unkempt, gray, a decent fellow and not a fool, and to be in love
with that pretty, stupid little girl who would never take a scrap
of notice of you! Or worse still: imagine that telegraphist is in
love, and at the same time married, and that his wife is as
stooping, as unkempt, and as decent a person as himself."
On the platform between our carriage and the next the guard was
standing with his elbows on the railing, looking in the direction
of the beautiful girl, and his battered, wrinkled, unpleasantly
beefy face, exhausted by sleepless nights and the jolting of the
train, wore a look of tenderness and of the deepest sadness, as
though in that girl he saw happiness, his own youth, soberness,
purity, wife, children; as though he were repenting and feeling
in his whole being that that girl was not his, and that for him,
with his premature old age, his uncouthness, and his beefy face,
the ordinary happiness of a man and a passenger was as far away
as heaven. . . .
The third bell rang, the whistles sounded, and the train slowly
moved off. First the guard, the station-master, then the garden,
the beautiful girl with her exquisitely sly smile, passed before
our windows. . . .
Putting my head out and looking back, I saw how, looking after
the train, she walked along the platform by the window where the
telegraph clerk was sitting, smoothed her hair, and ran into the
garden. The station no longer screened off the sunset, the plain
lay open before us, but the sun had already set and the smoke lay
in black clouds over the green, velvety young corn. It was
melancholy in the spring air, and in the darkening sky, and in
the railway carriage.
The familiar figure of the guard came into the carriage, and he
began lighting the candles.