Champagne by Anton Chekov
Translated by Constance Garrett
A WAYFARER'S STORY
IN the year in which my story begins I had a job at a little
station on one of our southwestern railways. Whether I had a gay
or a dull life at the station you can judge from the fact that
for fifteen miles round there was not one human habitation,
not one woman, not one decent tavern; and in those days I was
young, strong, hot-headed, giddy, and foolish. The only
distraction I could possibly find was in the windows of the
passenger trains, and in the vile vodka which the Jews drugged
with thorn-apple. Sometimes there would be a glimpse of a
woman's head at a carriage window, and one would stand like a
statue without breathing and stare at it until the train turned
into an almost invisible speck; or one would drink all one could
of the loathsome vodka till one was stupefied and did not feel
the passing of the long hours and days. Upon me, a native of the
no rth, the steppe produced the effect of a deserted Tatar
cemetery. In the summer the steppe with its solemn calm, the
monotonous chur of the grasshoppers, the transparent moonlight
from which one could not hide, reduced me to listless melancholy;
and in the winter the irreproachable whiteness of the steppe, its
cold distance, long nights, and howling wolves oppressed me like
a heavy nightmare. There were several people living at the
station: my wife and I, a deaf and scrofulous telegraph clerk,
and three watchmen. My assistant, a young man who was in
consumption, used to go for treatment to the town, where he
stayed for months at a time, leaving his duties to me together
with the right of pocketing his salary. I had no children, no
cake would have tempted visitors to come and see me, and I could
only visit other officials on the line, and that no oftener than
once a month.
I remember my wife and I saw the New Year in. We sat at table,
chewed lazily, and heard the deaf telegraph clerk monotonously
tapping on his apparatus in the next room. I had already drunk
five glasses of drugged vodka, and, propping my heavy head on my
fist, thought of my overpowering boredom from which there was no
escape, while my wife sat beside me and did not take her eyes off
me. She looked at me as no one can look but a woman who has
nothing in this world but a handsome husband. She loved me
madly, slavishly, and not merely my good looks, or my soul, but
my sins, my ill-humor and boredom, and even my cruelty when, in
drunken fury, not knowing how to vent my ill-humor, I tormented
her with reproaches.
In spite of the boredom which was consuming me, we were preparing
to see the New Year in with exceptional festiveness, and were
awaiting midnight with some impatience. The fact is, we had in
reserve two bottles of champagne, the real thing, with the label
of Veuve Clicquot; this treasure I had won the previous autumn in
a bet with the station-master of D. when I was drinking with him
at a christening. It sometimes happens during a lesson in
mathematics, when the very air is still with boredom, a
butterfly flutters into the class-room; the boys toss their heads
and begin watching its flight with interest, as though they saw
before them not a butterfly but something new and strange; in the
same way ordinary champagne, chancing to come into our dreary
station, roused us. We sat in silence looking alternately at the
clock and at the bottles.
When the hands pointed to five minutes to twelve I slowly began
uncorking a bottle. I don't know whether I was affected by the
vodka, or whether the bottle was wet, but all I remember is that
when the cork flew up to the ceiling with a bang, my bottle
slipped out of my hands and fell on the floor. Not more than a
glass of the wine was spilt, as I managed to catch the bottle and
put my thumb over the foaming neck.
"Well, may the New Year bring you happiness!" I said, filling two
My wife took her glass and fixed her frightened eyes on me. Her
face was pale and wore a look of horror.
"Did you drop the bottle?" she asked.
"Yes. But what of that?"
"It's unlucky," she said, putting down her glass and turning
paler still. "It's a bad omen. It means that some misfortune will
happen to us this year."
"What a silly thing you are," I sighed. "You are a clever woman,
and yet you talk as much nonsense as an old nurse. Drink."
"God grant it is nonsense, but . . . something is sure to happen!
She did not even sip her glass, she moved away and sank into
thought. I uttered a few stale commonplaces about superstition,
drank half a bottle, paced up and down, and then went out of the
Outside there was the still frosty night in all its cold,
inhospitable beauty. The moon and two white fluffy clouds beside
it hung just over the station, motionless as though glued to the
spot, and looked as though waiting for something. A faint
transparent light came from them and touched the white earth
softly, as though afraid of wounding her modesty, and lighted up
everything -- the snowdrifts, the embankment. . . . It was still.
I walked along the railway embankment.
"Silly woman," I thought, looking at the sky spangled with
brilliant stars. "Even if one admits that omens sometimes tell
the truth, what evil can happen to us? The misfortunes we have
endured already, and which are facing us now, are so great that
it is difficult to imagine anything worse. What further harm can
you do a fish which has been caught and fried and served up with
A poplar covered with hoar frost looked in the bluish darkness
like a giant wrapt in a shroud. It looked at me sullenly and
dejectedly, as though like me it realized its loneliness. I stood
a long while looking at it.
"My youth is thrown away for nothing, like a useless cigarette
end," I went on musing. "My parents died when I was a little
child; I was expelled from the high school, I was born of a noble
family, but I have received neither education nor breeding, and
I have no more knowledge than the humblest mechanic. I have no
refuge, no relations, no friends, no work I like. I am not fitted
for anything, and in the prime of my powers I am good for nothing
but to be stuffed into this little station; I have known nothing
but trouble and failure all my life. What can happen worse?"
Red lights came into sight in the distance. A train was moving
towards me. The slumbering steppe listened to the sound of it. My
thoughts were so bitter that it seemed to me that I was thinking
aloud and that the moan of the telegraph wire and the rumble of
the train were expressing my thoughts.
"What can happen worse? The loss of my wife?" I wondered. "Even
that is not terrible. It's no good hiding it from my conscience:
I don't love my wife. I married her when I was only a wretched
boy; now I am young and vigorous, and she has gone off and grown
older and sillier, stuffed from her head to her heels with
conventional ideas. What charm is there in her maudlin love, in
her hollow chest, in her lusterless eyes? I put up with her, but
I don't love her. What can happen? My youth is being wasted, as
the saying is, for a pinch of snuff. Women flit before my eyes
only in the carriage windows, like falling stars. Love I never
had and have not. My manhood, my courage, my power of feeling are
going to ruin. . . . Everything is being thrown away like dirt,
and all my wealth here in the steppe is not worth a farthing."
The train rushed past me with a roar and indifferently cast the
glow of its red lights upon me. I saw it stop by the green lights
of the station, stop for a minute and rumble off again. After
walking a mile and a half I went back. Melancholy thoughts
haunted me still. Painful as it was to me, yet I remember I tried
as it were to make my thoughts still gloomier and more
melancholy. You know people who are vain and not very clever have
moments when the consciousness that they are miserable affords
them positive satisfaction, and they even coquet with their
misery for their own entertainment. There was a great deal of
truth in what I thought, but there was also a great deal that was
absurd and conceited, and there was something boyishly defiant
in my question: "What could happen worse?"
"And what is there to happen?" I asked myself. "I think I have
endured everything. I've been ill, I've lost money, I get
reprimanded by my superiors every day, and I go hungry, and a mad
wolf has run into the station yard. What more is there? I have
been insulted, humiliated, . . . and I have insulted others in my
time. I have not been a criminal, it is true, but I don't think I
am capable of crime -- I am not afraid of being hauled up for
The two little clouds had moved away from the moon and stood at a
little distance, looking as though they were whispering about
something which the moon must not know. A light breeze was racing
across the steppe, bringing the faint rumble of the retreating
My wife met me at the doorway. Her eyes were laughing gaily and
her whole face was beaming with good-humor.
"There is news for you!" she whispered. "Make haste, go to your
room and put on your new coat; we have a visitor."
"Aunt Natalya Petrovna has just come by the train."
"What Natalya Petrovna?"
"The wife of my uncle Semyon Fyodoritch. You don't know her. She
is a very nice, good woman."
Probably I frowned, for my wife looked grave and whispered
"Of course it is queer her having come, but don't be cross,
Nikolay, and don't be hard on her. She is unhappy, you know;
Uncle Semyon Fyodoritch really is ill-natured and tyrannical, it
is difficult to live with him. She says she will only stay three
days with us, only till she gets a letter from her brother."
My wife whispered a great deal more nonsense to me about her
despotic uncle; about the weakness of mankind in general and of
young wives in particular; about its being our duty to give
shelter to all, even great sinners, and so on. Unable to make
head or tail of it, I put on my new coat and went to make
acquaintance with my "aunt."
A little woman with large black eyes was sitting at the table. My
table, the gray walls, my roughly-made sofa, everything to the
tiniest grain of dust seemed to have grown younger and more
cheerful in the presence of this new, young, beautiful, and
dissolute creature, who had a most subtle perfume about her. And
that our visitor was a lady of easy virtue I could see from her
smile, from her scent, from the peculiar way in which she glanced
and made play with her eyelashes, from the tone in which she
talked with my wife -- a respectable woman. There was no need to
tell me she had run away from her husband, that her husband was
old and despotic, that she was good-natured and lively; I took it
all in at the first glance. Indeed, it is doubtful whether there
is a man in all Europe who cannot spot at the first glance a
woman of a certain temperament.
"I did not know I had such a big nephew!" said my aunt, holding
out her hand to me and smiling.
"And I did not know I had such a pretty aunt," I answered.
Supper began over again. The cork flew with a bang out of the
second bottle, and my aunt swallowed half a glassful at a gulp,
and when my wife went out of the room for a moment my aunt did
not scruple to drain a full glass. I was drunk both with the
wine and with the presence of a woman. Do you remember the song?
"Eyes black as pitch, eyes full of passion,
Eyes burning bright and beautiful,
How I love you,
How I fear you!"
I don't remember what happened next. Anyone who wants to know how
love begins may read novels and long stories; I will put it
shortly and in the words of the same silly song:
"It was an evil hour
When first I met you."
Everything went head over heels to the devil. I remember a
fearful, frantic whirlwind which sent me flying round like a
feather. It lasted a long while, and swept from the face of the
earth my wife and my aunt herself and my strength. From the
little station in the steppe it has flung me, as you see, into
this dark street.
Now tell me what further evil can happen to me?