A Dreary Story by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Constance Garnett
FROM THE NOTEBOOK OF AN OLD MAN
THERE is in Russia an emeritus Professor Nikolay Stepanovitch, a chevalier
and privy councillor; he has so many Russian and foreign decorations that
when he has occasion to put them on the students nickname him "The
Ikonstand." His acquaintances are of the most aristocratic; for the last
twenty-five or thirty years, at any rate, there has not been one single
distinguished man of learning in Russia with whom he has not been
intimately acquainted. There is no one for him to make friends with
nowadays; but if we turn to the past, the long list of his famous friends
winds up with such names as Pirogov, Kavelin, and the poet Nekrasov, all
of whom bestowed upon him a warm and sincere affection. He is a member of
all the Russian and of three foreign universities. And so on, and so on.
All that and a great deal more that might be said makes up what is called
That is my name as known to the public. In Russia it is known to every
educated man, and abroad it is mentioned in the lecture-room with the
addition "honoured and distinguished." It is one of those fortunate names
to abuse which or to take which in vain, in public or in print, is
considered a sign of bad taste. And that is as it should be. You see, my
name is closely associated with the conception of a highly distinguished
man of great gifts and unquestionable usefulness. I have the industry and
power of endurance of a camel, and that is important, and I have talent,
which is even more important. Moreover, while I am on this subject, I am a
well-educated, modest, and honest fellow. I have never poked my nose into
literature or politics; I have never sought popularity in polemics with
the ignorant; I have never made speeches either at public dinners or at
the funerals of my friends.... In fact, there is no slur on my learned
name, and there is no complaint one can make against it. It is fortunate.
The bearer of that name, that is I, see myself as a man of sixty-two, with
a bald head, with false teeth, and with an incurable tic douloureux. I am
myself as dingy and unsightly as my name is brilliant and splendid. My
head and my hands tremble with weakness; my neck, as Turgenev says of one
of his heroines, is like the handle of a double bass; my chest is hollow;
my shoulders narrow; when I talk or lecture, my mouth turns down at one
corner; when I smile, my whole face is covered with aged-looking, deathly
wrinkles. There is nothing impressive about my pitiful figure; only,
perhaps, when I have an attack of tic douloureux my face wears a peculiar
expression, the sight of which must have roused in every one the grim and
impressive thought, "Evidently that man will soon die."
I still, as in the past, lecture fairly well; I can still, as in the past,
hold the attention of my listeners for a couple of hours. My fervour, the
literary skill of my exposition, and my humour, almost efface the defects
of my voice, though it is harsh, dry, and monotonous as a praying
beggar's. I write poorly. That bit of my brain which presides over the
faculty of authorship refuses to work. My memory has grown weak; there is
a lack of sequence in my ideas, and when I put them on paper it always
seems to me that I have lost the instinct for their organic connection; my
construction is monotonous; my language is poor and timid. Often I write
what I do not mean; I have forgotten the beginning when I am writing the
end. Often I forget ordinary words, and I always have to waste a great
deal of energy in avoiding superfluous phrases and unnecessary parentheses
in my letters, both unmistakable proofs of a decline in mental activity.
And it is noteworthy that the simpler the letter the more painful the
effort to write it. At a scientific article I feel far more intelligent
and at ease than at a letter of congratulation or a minute of proceedings.
Another point: I find it easier to write German or English than to write
As regards my present manner of life, I must give a foremost place to the
insomnia from which I have suffered of late. If I were asked what
constituted the chief and fundamental feature of my existence now, I
should answer, Insomnia. As in the past, from habit I undress and go to
bed exactly at midnight. I fall asleep quickly, but before two o'clock I
wake up and feel as though I had not slept at all. Sometimes I get out of
bed and light a lamp. For an hour or two I walk up and down the room
looking at the familiar photographs and pictures. When I am weary of
walking about, I sit down to my table. I sit motionless, thinking of
nothing, conscious of no inclination; if a book is lying before me, I
mechanically move it closer and read it without any interest—in that
way not long ago I mechanically read through in one night a whole novel,
with the strange title "The Song the Lark was Singing"; or to occupy my
attention I force myself to count to a thousand; or I imagine the face of
one of my colleagues and begin trying to remember in what year and under
what circumstances he entered the service. I like listening to sounds. Two
rooms away from me my daughter Liza says something rapidly in her sleep,
or my wife crosses the drawing-room with a candle and invariably drops the
matchbox; or a warped cupboard creaks; or the burner of the lamp suddenly
begins to hum—and all these sounds, for some reason, excite me.
To lie awake at night means to be at every moment conscious of being
abnormal, and so I look forward with impatience to the morning and the day
when I have a right to be awake. Many wearisome hours pass before the cock
crows in the yard. He is my first bringer of good tidings. As soon as he
crows I know that within an hour the porter will wake up below, and,
coughing angrily, will go upstairs to fetch something. And then a pale
light will begin gradually glimmering at the windows, voices will sound in
The day begins for me with the entrance of my wife. She comes in to me in
her petticoat, before she has done her hair, but after she has washed,
smelling of flower-scented eau-de-Cologne, looking as though she had come
in by chance. Every time she says exactly the same thing: "Excuse me, I
have just come in for a minute.... Have you had a bad night again?"
Then she puts out the lamp, sits down near the table, and begins talking.
I am no prophet, but I know what she will talk about. Every morning it is
exactly the same thing. Usually, after anxious inquiries concerning my
health, she suddenly mentions our son who is an officer serving at Warsaw.
After the twentieth of each month we send him fifty roubles, and that
serves as the chief topic of our conversation.
"Of course it is difficult for us," my wife would sigh, "but until he is
completely on his own feet it is our duty to help him. The boy is among
strangers, his pay is small.... However, if you like, next month we won't
send him fifty, but forty. What do you think?"
Daily experience might have taught my wife that constantly talking of our
expenses does not reduce them, but my wife refuses to learn by experience,
and regularly every morning discusses our officer son, and tells me that
bread, thank God, is cheaper, while sugar is a halfpenny dearer—with
a tone and an air as though she were communicating interesting news.
I listen, mechanically assent, and probably because I have had a bad
night, strange and inappropriate thoughts intrude themselves upon me. I
gaze at my wife and wonder like a child. I ask myself in perplexity, is it
possible that this old, very stout, ungainly woman, with her dull
expression of petty anxiety and alarm about daily bread, with eyes dimmed
by continual brooding over debts and money difficulties, who can talk of
nothing but expenses and who smiles at nothing but things getting cheaper—is
it possible that this woman is no other than the slender Varya whom I fell
in love with so passionately for her fine, clear intelligence, for her
pure soul, her beauty, and, as Othello his Desdemona, for her "sympathy"
for my studies? Could that woman be no other than the Varya who had once
borne me a son?
I look with strained attention into the face of this flabby, spiritless,
clumsy old woman, seeking in her my Varya, but of her past self nothing is
left but her anxiety over my health and her manner of calling my salary
"our salary," and my cap "our cap." It is painful for me to look at her,
and, to give her what little comfort I can, I let her say what she likes,
and say nothing even when she passes unjust criticisms on other people or
pitches into me for not having a private practice or not publishing
Our conversation always ends in the same way. My wife suddenly remembers
with dismay that I have not had my tea.
"What am I thinking about, sitting here?" she says, getting up. "The
samovar has been on the table ever so long, and here I stay gossiping. My
goodness! how forgetful I am growing!"
She goes out quickly, and stops in the doorway to say:
"We owe Yegor five months' wages. Did you know it? You mustn't let the
servants' wages run on; how many times I have said it! It's much easier to
pay ten roubles a month than fifty roubles every five months!"
As she goes out, she stops to say:
"The person I am sorriest for is our Liza. The girl studies at the
Conservatoire, always mixes with people of good position, and goodness
knows how she is dressed. Her fur coat is in such a state she is ashamed
to show herself in the street. If she were somebody else's daughter it
wouldn't matter, but of course every one knows that her father is a
distinguished professor, a privy councillor."
And having reproached me with my rank and reputation, she goes away at
last. That is how my day begins. It does not improve as it goes on.
As I am drinking my tea, my Liza comes in wearing her fur coat and her
cap, with her music in her hand, already quite ready to go to the
Conservatoire. She is two-and-twenty. She looks younger, is pretty, and
rather like my wife in her young days. She kisses me tenderly on my
forehead and on my hand, and says:
"Good-morning, papa; are you quite well?"
As a child she was very fond of ice-cream, and I used often to take her to
a confectioner's. Ice-cream was for her the type of everything delightful.
If she wanted to praise me she would say: "You are as nice as cream,
papa." We used to call one of her little fingers "pistachio ice," the
next, "cream ice," the third "raspberry," and so on. Usually when she came
in to say good-morning to me I used to sit her on my knee, kiss her little
fingers, and say:
"Creamy ice... pistachio... lemon...."
And now, from old habit, I kiss Liza's fingers and mutter: "Pistachio...
cream... lemon..." but the effect is utterly different. I am cold as ice
and I am ashamed. When my daughter comes in to me and touches my forehead
with her lips I start as though a bee had stung me on the head, give a
forced smile, and turn my face away. Ever since I have been suffering from
sleeplessness, a question sticks in my brain like a nail. My daughter
often sees me, an old man and a distinguished man, blush painfully at
being in debt to my footman; she sees how often anxiety over petty debts
forces me to lay aside my work and to walk u p and down the room for hours
together, thinking; but why is it she never comes to me in secret to
whisper in my ear: "Father, here is my watch, here are my bracelets, my
earrings, my dresses.... Pawn them all; you want money..."? How is it
that, seeing how her mother and I are placed in a false position and do
our utmost to hide our poverty from people, she does not give up her
expensive pleasure of music lessons? I would not accept her watch nor her
bracelets, nor the sacrifice of her lessons—God forbid! That isn't
what I want.
I think at the same time of my son, the officer at Warsaw. He is a clever,
honest, and sober fellow. But that is not enough for me. I think if I had
an old father, and if I knew there were moments when he was put to shame
by his poverty, I should give up my officer's commission to somebody else,
and should go out to earn my living as a workman. Such thoughts about my
children poison me. What is the use of them? It is only a narrow-minded or
embittered man who can harbour evil thoughts about ordinary people because
they are not heroes. But enough of that!
At a quarter to ten I have to go and give a lecture to my dear boys. I
dress and walk along the road which I have known for thirty years, and
which has its history for me. Here is the big grey house with the
chemist's shop; at this point there used to stand a little house, and in
it was a beershop; in that beershop I thought out my thesis and wrote my
first love-letter to Varya. I wrote it in pencil, on a page headed
"Historia morbi." Here there is a grocer's shop; at one time it was kept
by a little Jew, who sold me cigarettes on credit; then by a fat peasant
woman, who liked the students because "every one of them has a mother";
now there is a red-haired shopkeeper sitting in it, a very stolid man who
drinks tea from a copper teapot. And here are the gloomy gates of the
University, which have long needed doing up; I see the bored porter in his
sheep-skin, the broom, the drifts of snow.... On a boy coming fresh from
the provinces and imagining that the temple of science must really be a
temple, such gates cannot make a healthy impression. Altogether the
dilapidated condition of the University buildings, the gloominess of the
corridors, the griminess of the walls, the lack of light, the dejected
aspect of the steps, the hat-stands and the benches, take a prominent
position among predisposing causes in the history of Russian pessimism....
Here is our garden... I fancy it has grown neither better nor worse since
I was a student. I don't like it. It would be far more sensible if there
were tall pines and fine oaks growing here instead of sickly-looking
lime-trees, yellow acacias, and skimpy pollard lilacs. The student whose
state of mind is in the majority of cases created by his surroundings,
ought in the place where he is studying to see facing him at every turn
nothing but what is lofty, strong and elegant.... God preserve him from
gaunt trees, broken windows, grey walls, and doors covered with torn
When I go to my own entrance the door is flung wide open, and I am met by
my colleague, contemporary, and namesake, the porter Nikolay. As he lets
me in he clears his throat and says:
"A frost, your Excellency!"
Or, if my great-coat is wet:
"Rain, your Excellency!"
Then he runs on ahead of me and opens all the doors on my way. In my study
he carefully takes off my fur coat, and while doing so manages to tell me
some bit of University news. Thanks to the close intimacy existing between
all the University porters and beadles, he knows everything that goes on
in the four faculties, in the office, in the rector's private room, in the
library. What does he not know? When in an evil day a rector or dean, for
instance, retires, I hear him in conversation with the young porters
mention the candidates for the post, explain that such a one would not be
confirmed by the minister, that another would himself refuse to accept it,
then drop into fantastic details concerning mysterious papers received in
the office, secret conversations alleged to have taken place between the
minister and the trustee, and so on. With the exception of these details,
he almost always turns out to be right. His estimates of the candidates,
though original, are very correct, too. If one wants to know in what year
some one read his thesis, entered the service, retired, or died, then
summon to your assistance the vast memory of that soldier, and he will not
only tell you the year, the month and the day, but will furnish you also
with the details that accompanied this or that event. Only one who loves
can remember like that.
He is the guardian of the University traditions. From the porters who were
his predecessors he has inherited many legends of University life, has
added to that wealth much of his own gained during his time of service,
and if you care to hear he will tell you many long and intimate stories.
He can tell one about extraordinary sages who knew everything,
about remarkable students who did not sleep for weeks, about numerous
martyrs and victims of science; with him good triumphs over evil, the weak
always vanquishes the strong, the wise man the fool, the humble the proud,
the young the old. There is no need to take all these fables and legends
for sterling coin; but filter them, and you will have left what is wanted:
our fine traditions and the names of real heroes, recognized as such by
In our society the knowledge of the learned world consists of anecdotes of
the extraordinary absentmindedness of certain old professors, and two or
three witticisms variously ascribed to Gruber, to me, and to Babukin. For
the educated public that is not much. If it loved science, learned men,
and students, as Nikolay does, its literature would long ago have
contained whole epics, records of sayings and doings such as,
unfortunately, it cannot boast of now.
After telling me a piece of news, Nikolay assumes a severe expression, and
conversation about business begins. If any outsider could at such times
overhear Nikolay's free use of our terminology, he might perhaps imagine
that he was a learned man disguised as a soldier. And, by the way, the
rumours of the erudition of the University porters are greatly
exaggerated. It is true that Nikolay knows more than a hundred Latin
words, knows how to put the skeleton together, sometimes prepares the
apparatus and amuses the students by some long, learned quotation, but the
by no means complicated theory of the circulation of the blood, for
instance, is as much a mystery to him now as it was twenty years ago.
At the table in my study, bending low over some book or preparation, sits
Pyotr Ignatyevitch, my demonstrator, a modest and industrious but by no
means clever man of five-and-thirty, already bald and corpulent; he works
from morning to night, reads a lot, remembers well everything he has read—and
in that way he is not a man, but pure gold; in all else he is a carthorse
or, in other words, a learned dullard. The carthorse characteristics that
show his lack of talent are these: his outlook is narrow and sharply
limited by his specialty; outside his special branch he is simple as a
"Fancy! what a misfortune! They say Skobelev is dead."
Nikolay crosses himself, but Pyotr Ignatyevitch turns to me and asks:
"What Skobelev is that?"
Another time—somewhat earlier—I told him that Professor Perov
was dead. Good Pyotr Ignatyevitch asked:
"What did he lecture on?"
I believe if Patti had sung in his very ear, if a horde of Chinese had
invaded Russia, if there had been an earthquake, he would not have stirred
a limb, but screwing up his eye, would have gone on calmly looking through
his microscope. What is he to Hecuba or Hecuba to him, in fact? I would
give a good deal to see how this dry stick sleeps with his wife at night.
Another characteristic is his fanatical faith in the infallibility of
science, and, above all, of everything written by the Germans. He believes
in himself, in his preparations; knows the object of life, and knows
nothing of the doubts and disappointments that turn the hair o f talent
grey. He has a slavish reverence for authorities and a complete lack of
any desire for independent thought. To change his convictions is
difficult, to argue with him impossible. How is one to argue with a man
who is firmly persuaded that medicine is the finest of sciences, that
doctors are the best of men, and that the traditions of the medical
profession are superior to those of any other? Of the evil past of
medicine only one tradition has been preserved—the white tie still
worn by doctors; for a learned—in fact, for any educated man the
only traditions that can exist are those of the University as a whole,
with no distinction between medicine, law, etc. But it would be hard for
Pyotr Ignatyevitch to accept these facts, and he is ready to argue with
you till the day of judgment.
I have a clear picture in my mind of his future. In the course of his life
he will prepare many hundreds of chemicals of exceptional purity; he will
write a number of dry and very accurate memoranda, will make some dozen
conscientious translations, but he won't do anything striking. To do that
one must have imagination, inventiveness, the gift of insight, and Pyotr
Ignatyevitch has nothing of the kind. In short, he is not a master in
science, but a journeyman.
Pyotr Ignatyevitch, Nikolay, and I, talk in subdued tones. We are not
quite ourselves. There is always a peculiar feeling when one hears through
the doors a murmur as of the sea from the lecture-theatre. In the course
of thirty years I have not grown accustomed to this feeling, and I
experience it every morning. I nervously button up my coat, ask Nikolay
unnecessary questions, lose my temper.... It is just as though I were
frightened; it is not timidity, though, but something different which I
can neither describe nor find a name for.
Quite unnecessarily, I look at my watch and say: "Well, it's time to go
And we march into the room in the following order: foremost goes Nikolay,
with the chemicals and apparatus or with a chart; after him I come; and
then the carthorse follows humbly, with hanging head; or, when necessary,
a dead body is carried in first on a stretcher, followed by Nikolay, and
so on. On my entrance the students all stand up, then they sit down, and
the sound as of the sea is suddenly hushed. Stillness reigns.
I know what I am going to lecture about, but I don't know how I am going
to lecture, where I am going to begin or with what I am going to end. I
haven't a single sentence ready in my head. But I have only to look round
the lecture-hall (it is built in the form of an amphitheatre) and utter
the stereotyped phrase, "Last lecture we stopped at..." when sentences
spring up from my soul in a long string, and I am carried away by my own
eloquence. I speak with irresistible rapidity and passion, and it seems as
though there were no force which could check the flow of my words. To
lecture well—that is, with profit to the listeners and without
boring them—one must have, besides talent, experience and a special
knack; one must possess a clear conception of one's own powers, of the
audience to which one is lecturing, and of the subject of one's lecture.
Moreover, one must be a man who knows what he is doing; one must keep a
sharp lookout, and not for one second lose sight of what lies before one.
A good conductor, interpreting the thought of the composer, does twenty
things at once: reads the score, waves his baton, watches the singer,
makes a motion sideways, first to the drum then to the wind-instruments,
and so on. I do just the same when I lecture. Before me a hundred and
fifty faces, all unlike one another; three hundred eyes all looking
straight into my face. My object is to dominate this many-headed monster.
If every moment as I lecture I have a clear vision of the degree of its
attention and its power of comprehension, it is in my power. The other foe
I have to overcome is in myself. It is the infinite variety of forms,
phenomena, laws, and the multitude of ideas of my own and other people's
conditioned by them. Every moment I must have the skill to snatch out of
that vast mass of material what is most important and necessary, and, as
rapidly as my words flow, clothe my thought in a form in which it can be
grasped by the monster's intelligence, and may arouse its attention, and
at the same time one must keep a sharp lookout that one's thoughts are
conveyed, not just as they come, but in a certain order, essential for the
correct composition of the picture I wish to sketch. Further, I endeavour
to make my diction literary, my definitions brief and precise, my wording,
as far as possible, simple and eloquent. Every minute I have to pull
myself up and remember that I have only an hour and forty minutes at my
disposal. In short, one has one's work cut out. At one and the same minute
one has to play the part of savant and teacher and orator, and it's a bad
thing if the orator gets the upper hand of the savant or of the teacher in
one, or vice versa.
You lecture for a quarter of an hour, for half an hour, when you notice
that the students are beginning to look at the ceiling, at Pyotr
Ignatyevitch; one is feeling for his handkerchief, another shifts in his
seat, another smiles at his thoughts.... That means that their attention
is flagging. Something must be done. Taking advantage of the first
opportunity, I make some pun. A broad grin comes on to a hundred and fifty
faces, the eyes shine brightly, the sound of the sea is audible for a
brief moment.... I laugh too. Their attention is refreshed, and I can go
No kind of sport, no kind of game or diversion, has ever given me such
enjoyment as lecturing. Only at lectures have I been able to abandon
myself entirely to passion, and have understood that inspiration is not an
invention of the poets, but exists in real life, and I imagine Hercules
after the most piquant of his exploits felt just such voluptuous
exhaustion as I experience after every lecture.
That was in old times. Now at lectures I feel nothing but torture. Before
half an hour is over I am conscious of an overwhelming weakness in my legs
and my shoulders. I sit down in my chair, but I am not accustomed to
lecture sitting down; a minute later I get up and go on standing, then sit
down again. There is a dryness in my mouth, my voice grows husky, my head
begins to go round.... To conceal my condition from my audience I
continually drink water, cough, often blow my nose as though I were
hindered by a cold, make puns inappropriately, and in the end break off
earlier than I ought to. But above all I am ashamed.
My conscience and my intelligence tell me that the very best thing I could
do now would be to deliver a farewell lecture to the boys, to say my last
word to them, to bless them, and give up my post to a man younger and
stronger than me. But, God, be my judge, I have not manly courage enough
to act according to my conscience.
Unfortunately, I am not a philosopher and not a theologian. I know
perfectly well that I cannot live more than another six months; it might
be supposed that I ought now to be chiefly concerned with the question of
the shadowy life beyond the grave, and the visions that will visit my
slumbers in the tomb. But for some reason my soul refuses to recognize
these questions, though my mind is fully alive to their importance. Just
as twenty, thirty years ago, so now, on the threshold of death, I am
interested in nothing but science. As I yield up my last breath I shall
still believe that science is the most important, the most splendid, the
most essential thing in the life of man; that it always has been and will
be the highest manifestation of love, and that only by means of it will
man conquer himself and nature. This faith is perhaps naive and may rest
on false assumptions, but it is not my fault that I believe that and
nothing else; I cannot overcome in myself this belief.
But that is not the point. I only ask people to be indulgent to my
weakness, and to realize that to tear from the lecture-theatre and his
pupils a man who is more interested in the history of the development of
the bone medulla than in the final object of creation would be equivalent
to taking him and nailing him up in his coffin without waiting for him to
Sleeplessness and the consequent strain of combating increasing weakness
leads to something strange in me. In the middle of my lecture tears
suddenly rise in my throat, my eyes begin to smart, and I feel a
passionate, hysterical desire to stretch out my hands before me and break
into loud lamentation. I want to cry out in a loud voice that I, a famous
man, have been sentenced by fate to the death penalty, that within some
six months another man will be in control here in the lecture-theatre. I
want to shriek that I am poisoned; new ideas such as I have not known
before have poisoned the last days of my life, and are still stinging my
brain like mosquitoes. And at that moment my position seems to me so awful
that I want all my listeners to be horrified, to leap up from their seats
and to rush in panic terror, with desperate screams, to the exit.
It is not easy to get through such moments.
After my lecture I sit at home and work. I read journals and monographs,
or prepare my next lecture; sometimes I write something. I work with
interruptions, as I have from time to time to see visitors.
There is a ring at the bell. It is a colleague come to discuss some
business matter with me. He comes in to me with his hat and his stick,
and, holding out both these objects to me, says:
"Only for a minute! Only for a minute! Sit down, collega! Only a
couple of words."
To begin with, we both try to show each other that we are extraordinarily
polite and highly delighted to see each other. I make him sit down in an
easy-chair, and he makes me sit down; as we do so, we cautiously pat each
other on the back, touch each other's buttons, and it looks as though we
were feeling each other and afraid of scorching our fingers. Both of us
laugh, though we say nothing amusing. When we are seated we bow our heads
towards each other and begin talking in subdued voices. However
affectionately disposed we may be to one another, we cannot help adorning
our conversation with all sorts of Chinese mannerisms, such as "As you so
justly observed," or "I have already had the honour to inform you"; we
cannot help laughing if one of us makes a joke, however unsuccessfully.
When we have finished with business my colleague gets up impulsively and,
waving his hat in the direction of my work, begins to say good-bye. Again
we paw one another and laugh. I see him into the hall; when I assist my
colleague to put on his coat, while he does all he can to decline this
high honour. Then when Yegor opens the door my colleague declares that I
shall catch cold, while I make a show of being ready to go even into the
street with him. And when at last I go back into my study my face still
goes on smiling, I suppose from inertia.
A little later another ring at the bell. Somebody comes into the hall, and
is a long time coughing and taking off his things. Yegor announces a
student. I tell him to ask him in. A minute later a young man of agreeable
appearance comes in. For the last year he and I have been on strained
relations; he answers me disgracefully at the examinations, and I mark him
one. Every year I have some seven such hopefuls whom, to express it in the
students' slang, I "chivy" or "floor." Those of them who fail in their
examination through incapacity or illness usually bear their cross
patiently and do not haggle with me; those who come to the house and
haggle with me are always youths of sanguine temperament, broad natures,
whose failure at examinations spoils their appetites and hinders them from
visiting the opera with their usual regularity. I let the first class off
easily, but the second I chivy through a whole year.
"Sit down," I say to my visitor; "what have you to tell me?"
"Excuse me, professor, for troubling you," he begins, hesitating, and not
looking me in the face. "I would not have ventured to trouble you if it
had not been... I have been up for your examination five times, and have
been ploughed.... I beg you, be so good as to mark me for a pass,
The argument which all the sluggards bring forward on their own behalf is
always the same; they have passed well in all their subjects and have only
come to grief in mine, and that is the more surprising because they have
always been particularly interested in my subject and knew it so well;
their failure has always been entirely owing to some incomprehensible
"Excuse me, my friend," I say to the visitor; "I cannot mark you for a
pass. Go and read up the lectures and come to me again. Then we shall
A pause. I feel an impulse to torment the student a little for liking beer
and the opera better than science, and I say, with a sigh:
"To my mind, the best thing you can do now is to give up medicine
altogether. If, with your abilities, you cannot succeed in passing the
examination, it's evident that you have neither the desire nor the
vocation for a doctor's calling."
The sanguine youth's face lengthens.
"Excuse me, professor," he laughs, "but that would be odd of me, to say
the least of it. After studying for five years, all at once to give it
"Oh, well! Better to have lost your five years than have to spend the rest
of your life in doing work you do not care for."
But at once I feel sorry for him, and I hasten to add:
"However, as you think best. And so read a little more and come again."
"When?" the idle youth asks in a hollow voice.
"When you like. Tomorrow if you like."
And in his good-natured eyes I read:
"I can come all right, but of course you will plough me again, you beast!"
"Of course," I say, "you won't know more science for going in for my
examination another fifteen times, but it is training your character, and
you must be thankful for that."
Silence follows. I get up and wait for my visitor to go, but he stands and
looks towards the window, fingers his beard, and thinks. It grows boring.
The sanguine youth's voice is pleasant and mellow, his eyes are clever and
ironical, his face is genial, though a little bloated from frequent
indulgence in beer and overlong lying on the sofa; he looks as though he
could tell me a lot of interesting things about the opera, about his
affairs of the heart, and about comrades whom he likes. Unluckily, it is
not the thing to discuss these subjects, or else I should have been glad
to listen to him.
"Professor, I give you my word of honour that if you mark me for a pass
As soon as we reach the "word of honour" I wave my hands and sit down to
the table. The student ponders a minute longer, and says dejectedly:
"In that case, good-bye... I beg your pardon."
"Good-bye, my friend. Good luck to you."
He goes irresolutely into the hall, slowly puts on his outdoor things,
and, going out into the street, probably ponders for some time longer;
unable to think of anything, except "old devil," inwardly addressed to me,
he goes into a wretched restaurant to dine and drink beer, and then home
to bed. "Peace be to thy ashes, honest toiler."
A third ring at the bell. A young doctor, in a pair of new black trousers,
gold spectacles, and of course a white tie, walks in. He introduces
himself. I beg him to be seated, and ask what I can do for him. Not
without emotion, the young devotee of science begins telling me that he
has passed his examination as a doctor of medicine, and that he has now
only to write his dissertation. He would like to work with me under my
guidance, and he would be greatly obliged to me if I would give him a
subject for his dissertation.
"Very glad to be of use to you, colleague," I say, "but just let us come
to an understanding as to the meaning of a dissertation. That word is
taken to mean a composition which is a product of independent creative
effort. Is that not so? A work written on another man's subject and under
another man's guidance is called something different...."
The doctor says nothing. I fly into a rage and jump up from my seat.
"Why is it you all come to me?" I cry angrily. "Do I keep a shop? I don't
deal in subjects. For the thousand and oneth time I ask you all to leave
me in peace! Excuse my brutality, but I am quite sick of it!"
The doctor remains silent, but a faint flush is apparent on his
cheek-bones. His face expresses a profound reverence for my fame and my
learning, but from his eyes I can see he feels a contempt for my voice, my
pitiful figure, and my nervous gesticulation. I impress him in my anger as
a queer fish.
"I don't keep a shop," I go on angrily. "And it is a strange thing! Why
don't you want to be independent? Why have you such a distaste for
I say a great deal, but he still remains silent. By degrees I calm down,
and of course give in. The doctor gets a subject from me for his theme not
worth a halfpenny, writes under my supervision a dissertation of no use to
any one, with dignity defends it in a dreary discussion, and receives a
degree of no use to him.
The rings at the bell may follow one another endlessly, but I will confine
my description here to four of them. The bell rings for the fourth time,
and I hear familiar footsteps, the rustle of a dress, a dear voice....
Eighteen years ago a colleague of mine, an oculist, died leaving a little
daughter Katya, a child of seven, and sixty thousand roubles. In his will
he made me the child's guardian. Till she was ten years old Katya lived
with us as one of the family, then she was sent to a boarding-school, and
only spent the summer holidays with us. I never had time to look after her
education. I only superintended it at leisure moments, and so I can say
very little about her childhood.
The first thing I remember, and like so much in remembrance, is the
extraordinary trustfulness with which she came into our house and let
herself be treated by the doctors, a trustfulness which was always shining
in her little face. She would sit somewhere out of the way, with her face
tied up, invariably watching something with attention; whether she watched
me writing or turning over the pages of a book, or watched my wife
bustling about, or the cook scrubbing a potato in the kitchen, or the dog
playing, her eyes invariably expressed the same thought—that is,
"Everything that is done in this world is nice and sensible." She was
curious, and very fond of talking to me. Sometimes she would sit at the
table opposite me, watching my movements and asking questions. It
interested her to know what I was reading, what I did at the University,
whether I was not afraid of the dead bodies, what I did with my salary.
"Do the students fight at the University?" she would ask.
"They do, dear."
"And do you make them go down on their knees?"
"Yes, I do."
And she thought it funny that the students fought and I made them go down
on their knees, and she laughed. She was a gentle, patient, good child. It
happened not infrequently that I saw something taken away from her, saw
her punished without reason, or her curiosity repressed; at such times a
look of sadness was mixed with the invariable expression of trustfulness
on her face—that was all. I did not know how to take her part; only
when I saw her sad I had an inclination to draw her to me and to
commiserate her like some old nurse: "My poor little orphan one!"
I remember, too, that she was fond of fine clothes and of sprinkling
herself with scent. In that respect she was like me. I, too, am fond of
pretty clothes and nice scent.
I regret that I had not time nor inclination to watch over the rise and
development of the passion which took complete possession of Katya when
she was fourteen or fifteen. I mean her passionate love for the theatre.
When she used to come from boarding-school and stay with us for the summer
holidays, she talked of nothing with such pleasure and such warmth as of
plays and actors. She bored us with her continual talk of the theatre. My
wife and children would not listen to her. I was the only one who had not
the courage to refuse to attend to her. When she had a longing to share
her transports, she used to come into my study and say in an imploring
"Nikolay Stepanovitch, do let me talk to you about the theatre!"
I pointed to the clock, and said:
"I'll give you half an hour—begin."
Later on she used to bring with her dozens of portraits of actors and
actresses which she worshipped; then she attempted several times to take
part in private theatricals, and the upshot of it all was that when she
left school she came to me and announced that she was born to be an
I had never shared Katya's inclinations for the theatre. To my mind, if a
play is good there is no need to trouble the actors in order that it may
make the right impression; it is enough to read it. If the play is poor,
no acting will make it good.
In my youth I often visited the theatre, and now my family takes a box
twice a year and carries me off for a little distraction. Of course, that
is not enough to give me the right to judge of the theatre. In my opinion
the theatre has become no better than it was thirty or forty years ago.
Just as in the past, I can never find a glass of clean water in the
corridors or foyers of the theatre. Just as in the past, the attendants
fine me twenty kopecks for my fur coat, though there is nothing
reprehensible in wearing a warm coat in winter. As in the past, for no
sort of reason, music is played in the intervals, which adds something new
and uncalled-for to the impression made by the play. As in the past, men
go in the intervals and drink spirits in the buffet. If no progress can be
seen in trifles, I should look for it in vain in what is more important.
When an actor wrapped from head to foot in stage traditions and
conventions tries to recite a simple ordinary speech, "To be or not to
be," not simply, but invariably with the accompaniment of hissing and
convulsive movements all over his body, or when he tries to convince me at
all costs that Tchatsky, who talks so much with fools and is so fond of
folly, is a very clever man, and that "Woe from Wit" is not a dull play,
the stage gives me the same feeling of conventionality which bored me so
much forty years ago when I was regaled with the classical howling and
beating on the breast. And every time I come out of the theatre more
conservative than I go in.
The sentimental and confiding public may be persuaded that the stage, even
in its present form, is a school; but any one who is familiar with a
school in its true sense will not be caught with that bait. I cannot say
what will happen in fifty or a hundred years, but in its actual condition
the theatre can serve only as an entertainment. But this entertainment is
too costly to be frequently enjoyed. It robs the state of thousands of
healthy and talented young men and women, who, if they had not devoted
themselves to the theatre, might have been good doctors, farmers,
schoolmistresses, officers; it robs the public of the evening hours—the
best time for intellectual work and social intercourse. I say nothing of
the waste of money and the moral damage to the spectator when he sees
murder, fornication, or false witness unsuitably treated on the stage.
Katya was of an entirely different opinion. She assured me that the
theatre, even in its present condition, was superior to the lecture-hall,
to books, or to anything in the world. The stage was a power that united
in itself all the arts, and actors were missionaries. No art nor science
was capable of producing so strong and so certain an effect on the soul of
man as the stage, and it was with good reason that an actor of medium
quality enjoys greater popularity than the greatest savant or artist. And
no sort of public service could provide such enjoyment and gratification
as the theatre.
And one fine day Katya joined a troupe of actors, and went off, I believe
to Ufa, taking away with her a good supply of money, a store of rainbow
hopes, and the most aristocratic views of her work.
Her first letters on the journey were marvellous. I read them, and was
simply amazed that those small sheets of paper could contain so much
youth, purity of spirit, holy innocence, and at the same time subtle and
apt judgments which would have done credit to a fine mas culine intellect.
It was more like a rapturous paean of praise she sent me than a mere
description of the Volga, the country, the towns she visited, her
companions, her failures and successes; every sentence was fragrant with
that confiding trustfulness I was accustomed to read in her face—and
at the same time there were a great many grammatical mistakes, and there
was scarcely any punctuation at all.
Before six months had passed I received a highly poetical and enthusiastic
letter beginning with the words, "I have come to love..." This letter was
accompanied by a photograph representing a young man with a shaven face, a
wide-brimmed hat, and a plaid flung over his shoulder. The letters that
followed were as splendid as before, but now commas and stops made their
appearance in them, the grammatical mistakes disappeared, and there was a
distinctly masculine flavour about them. Katya began writing to me how
splendid it would be to build a great theatre somewhere on the Volga, on a
cooperative system, and to attract to the enterprise the rich merchants
and the steamer owners; there would be a great deal of money in it; there
would be vast audiences; the actors would play on co-operative terms....
Possibly all this was really excellent, but it seemed to me that such
schemes could only originate from a man's mind.
However that may have been, for a year and a half everything seemed to go
well: Katya was in love, believed in her work, and was happy; but then I
began to notice in her letters unmistakable signs of falling off. It began
with Katya's complaining of her companions—this was the first and
most ominous symptom; if a young scientific or literary man begins his
career with bitter complaints of scientific and literary men, it is a sure
sign that he is worn out and not fit for his work. Katya wrote to me that
her companions did not attend the rehearsals and never knew their parts;
that one could see in every one of them an utter disrespect for the public
in the production of absurd plays, and in their behaviour on the stage;
that for the benefit of the Actors' Fund, which they only talked about,
actresses of the serious drama demeaned themselves by singing
chansonettes, while tragic actors sang comic songs making fun of deceived
husbands and the pregnant condition of unfaithful wives, and so on. In
fact, it was amazing that all this had not yet ruined the provincial
stage, and that it could still maintain itself on such a rotten and
In answer I wrote Katya a long and, I must confess, a very boring letter.
Among other things, I wrote to her:
"I have more than once happened to converse with old actors, very worthy
men, who showed a friendly disposition towards me; from my conversations
with them I could understand that their work was controlled not so much by
their own intelligence and free choice as by fashion and the mood of the
public. The best of them had had to play in their day in tragedy, in
operetta, in Parisian farces, and in extravaganzas, and they always seemed
equally sure that they were on the right path and that they were of use.
So, as you see, the cause of the evil must be sought, not in the actors,
but, more deeply, in the art itself and in the attitude of the whole of
society to it."
This letter of mine only irritated Katya. She answered me:
"You and I are singing parts out of different operas. I wrote to you, not
of the worthy men who showed a friendly disposition to you, but of a band
of knaves who have nothing worthy about them. They are a horde of savages
who have got on the stage simply because no one would have taken them
elsewhere, and who call themselves artists simply because they are
impudent. There are numbers of dull-witted creatures, drunkards,
intriguing schemers and slanderers, but there is not one person of talent
among them. I cannot tell you how bitter it is to me that the art I love
has fallen into the hands of people I detest; how bitter it is that the
best men look on at evil from afar, not caring to come closer, and,
instead of intervening, write ponderous commonplaces and utterly useless
sermons...." And so on, all in the same style.
A little time passed, and I got this letter: "I have been brutally
deceived. I cannot go on living. Dispose of my money as you think best. I
loved you as my father and my only friend. Good-bye."
It turned out that he, too, belonged to the "horde of savages."
Later on, from certain hints, I gathered that there had been an attempt at
suicide. I believe Katya tried to poison herself. I imagine that she must
have been seriously ill afterwards, as the next letter I got was from
Yalta, where she had most probably been sent by the doctors. Her last
letter contained a request to send her a thousand roubles to Yalta as
quickly as possible, and ended with these words:
"Excuse the gloominess of this letter; yesterday I buried my child." After
spending about a year in the Crimea, she returned home.
She had been about four years on her travels, and during those four years,
I must confess, I had played a rather strange and unenviable part in
regard to her. When in earlier days she had told me she was going on the
stage, and then wrote to me of her love; when she was periodically
overcome by extravagance, and I continually had to send her first one and
then two thousand roubles; when she wrote to me of her intention of
suicide, and then of the death of her baby, every time I lost my head, and
all my sympathy for her sufferings found no expression except that, after
prolonged reflection, I wrote long, boring letters which I might just as
well not have written. And yet I took a father's place with her and loved
her like a daughter!
Now Katya is living less than half a mile off. She has taken a flat of
five rooms, and has installed herself fairly comfortably and in the taste
of the day. If any one were to undertake to describe her surroundings, the
most characteristic note in the picture would be indolence. For the
indolent body there are soft lounges, soft stools; for indolent feet soft
rugs; for indolent eyes faded, dingy, or flat colours; for the indolent
soul the walls are hung with a number of cheap fans and trivial pictures,
in which the originality of the execution is more conspicuous than the
subject; and the room contains a multitude of little tables and shelves
filled with utterly useless articles of no value, and shapeless rags in
place of curtains.... All this, together with the dread of bright colours,
of symmetry, and of empty space, bears witness not only to spiritual
indolence, but also to a corruption of natural taste. For days together
Katya lies on the lounge reading, principally novels and stories. She only
goes out of the house once a day, in the afternoon, to see me.
I go on working while Katya sits silent not far from me on the sofa,
wrapping herself in her shawl, as though she were cold. Either because I
find her sympathetic or because I was used to her frequent visits when she
was a little girl, her presence does not prevent me from concentrating my
attention. From time to time I mechanically ask her some question; she
gives very brief replies; or, to rest for a minute, I turn round and watch
her as she looks dreamily at some medical journal or review. And at such
moments I notice that her face has lost the old look of confiding
trustfulness. Her expression now is cold, apathetic, and absent-minded,
like that of passengers who had to wait too long for a train. She is
dressed, as in old days, simply and beautifully, but carelessly; her dress
and her hair show visible traces of the sofas and rocking-chairs in which
she spends whole days at a stretch. And she has lost the curiosity she had
in old days. She has ceased to ask me questions now, as though she had
experienced everything in life and looked for nothing new from it.
Towards four o'clock there begins to be sounds of movement in the hall and
in the drawing-room. Liza has come back from the Conservatoire, and has
brought some girl-friends in with her. We hear them playing on the piano,
trying their voices and laughing; in the dining-room Yegor is laying the
table, with the clatter of crockery.
"Good-bye," said Katya. "I won't go in and see your people today. They
must excuse me. I haven't time. Come and see me."
While I am seeing her to the door, she looks me up and down grimly, and
says with vexation:
"You are getting thinner and thinner! Why don't you consult a doctor? I'll
call at Sergey Fyodorovitch's and ask him to have a look at you."
"There's no need, Katya."
"I can't think where your people's eyes are! They are a nice lot, I must
She puts on her fur coat abruptly, and as she does so two or three
hairpins drop unnoticed on the floor from her carelessly arranged hair.
She is too lazy and in too great a hurry to do her hair up; she carelessly
stuffs the falling curls under her hat, and goes away.
When I go into the dining-room my wife asks me:
"Was Katya with you just now? Why didn't she come in to see us? It's
"Mamma," Liza says to her reproachfully, "let her alone, if she doesn't
want to. We are not going down on our knees to her."
"It's very neglectful, anyway. To sit for three hours in the study without
remembering our existence! But of course she must do as she likes."
Varya and Liza both hate Katya. This hatred is beyond my comprehension,
and probably one would have to be a woman in order to understand it. I am
ready to stake my life that of the hundred and fifty young men I see every
day in the lecture-theatre, and of the hundred elderly ones I meet every
week, hardly one could be found capable of understanding their hatred and
aversion for Katya's past—that is, for her having been a mother
without being a wife, and for her having had an illegitimate child; and at
the same time I cannot recall one woman or girl of my acquaintance who
would not consciously or unconsciously harbour such feelings. And this is
not because woman is purer or more virtuous than man: why, virtue and
purity are not very different from vice if they are not free from evil
feeling. I attribute this simply to the backwardness of woman. The
mournful feeling of compassion and the pang of conscience experienced by a
modern man at the sight of suffering is, to my mind, far greater proof of
culture and moral elevation than hatred and aversion. Woman is as tearful
and as coarse in her feelings now as she was in the Middle Ages, and to my
thinking those who advise that she should be educated like a man are quite
My wife also dislikes Katya for having been an actress, for ingratitude,
for pride, for eccentricity, and for the numerous vices which one woman
can always find in another.
Besides my wife and daughter and me, there are dining with us two or three
of my daughter's friends and Alexandr Adolfovitch Gnekker, her admirer and
suitor. He is a fair-haired young man under thirty, of medium height, very
stout and broad-shouldered, with red whiskers near his ears, and little
waxed moustaches which make his plump smooth face look like a toy. He is
dressed in a very short reefer jacket, a flowered waistcoat, breeches very
full at the top and very narrow at the ankle, with a large check pattern
on them, and yellow boots without heels. He has prominent eyes like a
crab's, his cravat is like a crab's neck, and I even fancy there is a
smell of crab-soup about the young man's whole person. He visits us every
day, but no one in my family knows anything of his origin nor of the place
of his education, nor of his means of livelihood. He neither plays nor
sings, but has some connection with music and singing, sells somebody's
pianos somewhere, is frequently at the Conservatoire, is acquainted with
all the celebrities, and is a steward at the concerts; he criticizes music
with great authority, and I have noticed that people are eager to agree
Rich people always have dependents hanging about them; the arts and
sciences have the same. I believe there is not an art nor a science in the
world free from "foreign bodies" after the style of this Mr. Gnekker. I am
not a musician, and possibly I am mistaken in regard to Mr. Gnekker, of
whom, indeed, I know very little. But his air of authority and the dignity
with which he takes his stand beside the piano when any one is playing or
singing strike me as very suspicious.
You may be ever so much of a gentleman and a privy councillor, but if you
have a daughter you cannot be secure of immunity from that petty bourgeois
atmosphere which is so often brought into your house and into your mood by
the attentions of suitors, by matchmaking and marriage. I can never
reconcile myself, for instance, to the expression of triumph on my wife's
face every time Gnekker is in our company, nor can I reconcile myself to
the bottles of Lafitte, port and sherry which are only brought out on his
account, that he may see with his own eyes the liberal and luxurious way
in which we live. I cannot tolerate the habit of spasmodic laughter Liza
has picked up at the Conservatoire, and her way of screwing up her eyes
whenever there are men in the room. Above all, I cannot understand why a
creature utterly alien to my habits, my studies, my whole manner of life,
completely different from the people I like, should come and see me every
day, and every day should dine with me. My wife and my servants
mysteriously whisper that he is a suitor, but still I don't understand his
presence; it rouses in me the same wonder and perplexity as if they were
to set a Zulu beside me at the table. And it seems strange to me, too,
that my daughter, whom I am used to thinking of as a child, should love
that cravat, those eyes, those soft cheeks....
In the old days I used to like my dinner, or at least was indifferent
about it; now it excites in me no feeling but weariness and irritation.
Ever since I became an "Excellency" and one of the Deans of the Faculty my
family has for some reason found it necessary to make a complete change in
our menu and dining habits. Instead of the simple dishes to which I was
accustomed when I was a student and when I was in practice, now they feed
me with a puree with little white things like circles floating about in
it, and kidneys stewed in madeira. My rank as a general and my fame have
robbed me for ever of cabbage-soup and savoury pies, and goose with
apple-sauce, and bream with boiled grain. They have robbed me of our
maid-servant Agasha, a chatty and laughter-loving old woman, instead of
whom Yegor, a dull-witted and conceited fellow with a white glove on his
right hand, waits at dinner. The intervals between the courses are short,
but they seem immensely long because there is nothing to occupy them.
There is none of the gaiety of the old days, the spontaneous talk, the
jokes, the laughter; there is nothing of mutual affection and the joy
which used to animate the children, my wife, and me when in old days we
met together at meals. For me, the celebrated man of science, dinner was a
time of rest and reunion, and for my wife and children a fete—brief
indeed, but bright and joyous—in which they knew that for half an
hour I belonged, not to science, not to students, but to them alone. Our
real exhilaration from one glass of wine is gone for ever, gone is Agasha,
gone the bream with boiled grain, gone the uproar that greeted every
little startling incident at dinner, such as the cat and dog fighting
under the table, or Katya's bandage falling off her face into her
To describe our dinner nowadays is as uninteresting as to eat it. My
wife's face wears a look of triumph and affected dignity, and her habitual
expression of anxiety. She looks at our plates and says, "I see you don't
care for the joint. Tell me; you don't like it, do you?" and I am obliged
to answer: "There is no need for you to trouble, my dear; the meat is very
nice." And she will say: "You always stand up for me, Nikolay
Stepanovitch, and you never tell the truth. Why is Alexandr Adolfovitch
eating so little?" And so on in the same style all through dinner. Liza
laughs spasmodically and screws up her eyes. I watch them both, and it is
only now at dinner that it becomes absolutely evident to me that the inner
life of these two has slipped away out of my ken. I have a feeling as
though I had once lived at home with a real wife and children and that now
I am dining with visitors, in the house of a sham wife who is not the real
one, and am looking at a Liza who is not the real Liza. A startling change
has taken place in both of them; I have missed the long process by which
that change was effected, and it is no wonder that I can make nothing of
it. Why did that change take place? I don't know. Perhaps the whole
trouble is that God has not given my wife and daughter the same strength
of character as me. From childhood I have been accustomed to resisting
external influences, and have steeled myself pretty thoroughly. Such
catastrophes in life as fame, the rank of a general, the transition from
comfort to living beyond our means, acquaintance with celebrities, etc.,
have scarcely affected me, and I have remained intact and unashamed; but
on my wife and Liza, who have not been through the same hardening process
and are weak, all this has fallen like an avalanche of snow, overwhelming
them. Gnekker and the young ladies talk of fugues, of counterpoint, of
singers and pianists, of Bach and Brahms, while my wife, afraid of their
suspecting her of ignorance of music, smiles to them sympathetically and
mutters: "That's exquisite... really! You don't say so!..." Gnekker eats
with solid dignity, jests with solid dignity, and condescendingly listens
to the remarks of the young ladies. From time to time he is moved to speak
in bad French, and then, for some reason or other, he thinks it necessary
to address me as "Votre Excellence."
And I am glum. Evidently I am a constraint to them and they are a
constraint to me. I have never in my earlier days had a close knowledge of
class antagonism, but now I am tormented by something of that sort. I am
on the lookout for nothing but bad qualities in Gnekker; I quickly find
them, and am fretted at the thought that a man not of my circle is sitting
here as my daughter's suitor. His presence has a bad influence on me in
other ways, too. As a rule, when I am alone or in the society of people I
like, never think of my own achievements, or, if I do recall them, they
seem to me as trivial as though I had only completed my studies yesterday;
but in the presence of people like Gnekker my achievements in science seem
to be a lofty mountain the top of which vanishes into the clouds, while at
its foot Gnekkers are running about scarcely visible to the naked eye.
After dinner I go into my study and there smoke my pipe, the only one in
the whole day, the sole relic of my old bad habit of smoking from morning
till night. While I am smoking my wife comes in and sits down to talk to
me. Just as in the morning, I know beforehand what our conversation is
going to be about.
"I must talk to you seriously, Nikolay Stepanovitch," she begins. "I mean
about Liza.... Why don't you pay attention to it?"
"You pretend to notice nothing. But that is not right. We can't shirk
responsibility.... Gnekker has intentions in regard to Liza.... What do
"That he is a bad man I can't say, because I don't know him, but that I
don't like him I have told you a thousand times already."
"But you can't... you can't!"
She gets up and walks about in excitement.
"You can't take up that attitude to a serious step," she says. "When it is
a question of our daughter's happiness we must lay aside all personal
feeling. I know you do not like him.... Very good... if we refuse him now,
if we break it all off, how can you be sure that Liza will not have a
grievance against us all her life? Suitors are not plentiful nowadays,
goodness knows, and it may happen that no other match will turn up.... He
is very much in love with Liza, and she seems to like him.... Of course,
he has no settled position, but that can't be helped. Please God, in time
he will get one. He is of good family and well off."
"Where did you learn that?"
"He told us so. His father has a large house in Harkov and an estate in
the neighbourhood. In short, Nikolay Stepanovitch, you absolutely must go
"You will find out all about him there.... You know the professors there;
they will help you. I would go myself, but I am a woman. I cannot...."
"I am not going to Harkov," I say morosely.
My wife is frightened, and a look of intense suffering comes into her
"For God's sake, Nikolay Stepanovitch," she implores me, with tears in her
voice—"for God's sake, take this burden off me! I am so worried!"
It is painful for me to look at her.
"Very well, Varya," I say affectionately, "if you wish it, then certainly
I will go to Harkov and do all you want."
She presses her handkerchief to her eyes and goes off to her room to cry,
and I am left alone.
A little later lights are brought in. The armchair and the lamp-shade cast
familiar shadows that have long grown wearisome on the walls and on the
floor, and when I look at them I feel as though the night had come and
with it my accursed sleeplessness. I lie on my bed, then get up and walk
about the room, then lie down again. As a rule it is after dinner, at the
approach of evening, that my nervous excitement reaches its highest pitch.
For no reason I begin crying and burying my head in the pillow. At such
times I am afraid that some one may come in; I am afraid of suddenly
dying; I am ashamed of my tears, and altogether there is something
insufferable in my soul. I feel that I can no longer bear the sight of my
lamp, of my books, of the shadows on the floor. I cannot bear the sound of
the voices coming from the drawing-room. Some force unseen,
uncomprehended, is roughly thrusting me out of my flat. I leap up
hurriedly, dress, and cautiously, that my family may not notice, slip out
into the street. Where am I to go?
The answer to that question has long been ready in my brain. To Katya.
As a rule she is lying on the sofa or in a lounge-chair reading. Seeing
me, she raises her head languidly, sits up, and shakes hands.
"You are always lying down," I say, after pausing and taking breath.
"That's not good for you. You ought to occupy yourself with something."
"I say you ought to occupy yourself in some way."
"With what? A woman can be nothing but a simple workwoman or an actress."
"Well, if you can't be a workwoman, be an actress."
She says nothing.
"You ought to get married," I say, half in jest.
"There is no one to marry. There's no reason to, either."
"You can't live like this."
"Without a husband? Much that matters; I could have as many men as I like
if I wanted to."
"That's ugly, Katya."
"What is ugly?"
"Why, what you have just said."
Noticing that I am hurt and wishing to efface the disagreeable impression,
"Let us go; come this way."
She takes me into a very snug little room, and says, pointing to the
"Look... I have got that ready for you. You shall work here. Come here
every day and bring your work with you. They only hinder you there at
home. Will you work here? Will you like to?"
Not to wound her by refusing, I answer that I will work here, and that I
like the room very much. Then we both sit down in the snug little room and
The warm, snug surroundings and the presence of a sympathetic person does
not, as in old days, arouse in me a feeling of pleasure, but an intense
impulse to complain and grumble. I feel for some reason that if I lament
and complain I shall feel better.
"Things are in a bad way with me, my dear—very bad...."
"What is it?"
"You see how it is, my dear; the best and holiest right of kings is the
right of mercy. And I have always felt myself a king, since I have made
unlimited use of that right. I have never judged, I have been indulgent, I
have readily forgiven every one, right and left. Where others have
protested and expressed indignation, I have only advised and persuaded.
All my life it has been my endeavour that my society should not be a
burden to my family, to my students, to my colleagues, to my servants. And
I know that this attitude to people has had a good influence on all who
have chanced to c ome into contact with me. But now I am not a king.
Something is happening to me that is only excusable in a slave; day and
night my brain is haunted by evil thoughts, and feelings such as I never
knew before are brooding in my soul. I am full of hatred, and contempt,
and indignation, and loathing, and dread. I have become excessively
severe, exacting, irritable, ungracious, suspicious. Even things that in
old days would have provoked me only to an unnecessary jest and a
good-natured laugh now arouse an oppressive feeling in me. My reasoning,
too, has undergone a change: in old days I despised money; now I harbour
an evil feeling, not towards money, but towards the rich as though they
were to blame: in old days I hated violence and tyranny, but now I hate
the men who make use of violence, as though they were alone to blame, and
not all of us who do not know how to educate each other. What is the
meaning of it? If these new ideas and new feelings have come from a change
of convictions, what is that change due to? Can the world have grown worse
and I better, or was I blind before and indifferent? If this change is the
result of a general decline of physical and intellectual powers—I am
ill, you know, and every day I am losing weight—my position is
pitiable; it means that my new ideas are morbid and abnormal; I ought to
be ashamed of them and think them of no consequence...."
"Illness has nothing to do with it," Katya interrupts me; "it's simply
that your eyes are opened, that's all. You have seen what in old days, for
some reason, you refused to see. To my thinking, what you ought to do
first of all, is to break with your family for good, and go away."
"You are talking nonsense."
"You don't love them; why should you force your feelings? Can you call
them a family? Nonentities! If they died today, no one would notice their
Katya despises my wife and Liza as much as they hate her. One can hardly
talk at this date of people's having a right to despise one another. But
if one looks at it from Katya's standpoint and recognizes such a right,
one can see she has as much right to despise my wife and Liza as they have
to hate her.
"Nonentities," she goes on. "Have you had dinner today? How was it they
did not forget to tell you it was ready? How is it they still remember
"Katya," I say sternly, "I beg you to be silent."
"You think I enjoy talking about them? I should be glad not to know them
at all. Listen, my dear: give it all up and go away. Go abroad. The sooner
"What nonsense! What about the University?"
"The University, too. What is it to you? There's no sense in it, anyway.
You have been lecturing for thirty years, and where are your pupils? Are
many of them celebrated scientific men? Count them up! And to multiply the
doctors who exploit ignorance and pile up hundreds of thousands for
themselves, there is no need to be a good and talented man. You are not
"Good heavens! how harsh you are!" I cry in horror. "How harsh you are! Be
quiet or I will go away! I don't know how to answer the harsh things you
The maid comes in and summons us to tea. At the samovar our conversation,
thank God, changes. After having had my grumble out, I have a longing to
give way to another weakness of old age, reminiscences. I tell Katya about
my past, and to my great astonishment tell her incidents which, till then,
I did not suspect of being still preserved in my memory, and she listens
to me with tenderness, with pride, holding her breath. I am particularly
fond of telling her how I was educated in a seminary and dreamed of going
to the University.
"At times I used to walk about our seminary garden..." I would tell her.
"If from some faraway tavern the wind floated sounds of a song and the
squeaking of an accordion, or a sledge with bells dashed by the
garden-fence, it was quite enough to send a rush of happiness, filling not
only my heart, but even my stomach, my legs, my arms.... I would listen to
the accordion or the bells dying away in the distance and imagine myself a
doctor, and paint pictures, one better than another. And here, as you see,
my dreams have come true. I have had more than I dared to dream of. For
thirty years I have been the favourite professor, I have had splendid
comrades, I have enjoyed fame and honour. I have loved, married from
passionate love, have had children. In fact, looking back upon it, I see
my whole life as a fine composition arranged with talent. Now all that is
left to me is not to spoil the end. For that I must die like a man. If
death is really a thing to dread, I must meet it as a teacher, a man of
science, and a citizen of a Christian country ought to meet it, with
courage and untroubled soul. But I am spoiling the end; I am sinking, I
fly to you, I beg for help, and you tell me 'Sink; that is what you ought
But here there comes a ring at the front-door. Katya and I recognize it,
"It must be Mihail Fyodorovitch."
And a minute later my colleague, the philologist Mihail Fyodorovitch, a
tall, well-built man of fifty, clean-shaven, with thick grey hair and
black eyebrows, walks in. He is a good-natured man and an excellent
comrade. He comes of a fortunate and talented old noble family which has
played a prominent part in the history of literature and enlightenment. He
is himself intelligent, talented, and very highly educated, but has his
oddities. To a certain extent we are all odd and all queer fish, but in
his oddities there is something exceptional, apt to cause anxiety among
his acquaintances. I know a good many people for whom his oddities
completely obscure his good qualities.
Coming in to us, he slowly takes off his gloves and says in his velvety
"Good-evening. Are you having tea? That's just right. It's diabolically
Then he sits down to the table, takes a glass, and at once begins talking.
What is most characteristic in his manner of talking is the continually
jesting tone, a sort of mixture of philosophy and drollery as in
Shakespeare's gravediggers. He is always talking about serious things, but
he never speaks seriously. His judgments are always harsh and railing,
but, thanks to his soft, even, jesting tone, the harshness and abuse do
not jar upon the ear, and one soon grows used to them. Every evening he
brings with him five or six anecdotes from the University, and he usually
begins with them when he sits down to table.
"Oh, Lord!" he sighs, twitching his black eyebrows ironically. "What comic
people there are in the world!"
"Well?" asks Katya.
"As I was coming from my lecture this morning I met that old idiot N. N——
on the stairs.... He was going along as usual, sticking out his chin like
a horse, looking for some one to listen to his grumblings at his migraine,
at his wife, and his students who won't attend his lectures. 'Oh,' I
thought, 'he has seen me—I am done for now; it is all up....'"
And so on in the same style. Or he will begin like this:
"I was yesterday at our friend Z. Z——'s public lecture. I
wonder how it is our alma mater—don't speak of it after dark—dare
display in public such noodles and patent dullards as that Z. Z——
Why, he is a European fool! Upon my word, you could not find another like
him all over Europe! He lectures—can you imagine?—as though he
were sucking a sugar-stick—sue, sue, sue;... he is in a nervous
funk; he can hardly decipher his own manuscript; his poor little thoughts
crawl along like a bishop on a bicycle, and, what's worse, you can never
make out what he is trying to say. The deadly dulness is awful, the very
flies expire. It can only be compared with the boredom in the
assembly-hall at the yearly meeting when the traditional address is read—damn
And at once an abrupt transition:
"Three years ago—Nikolay Stepanovitch here will remember it—I
had to deliver that address. It was hot, stifling, my uniform cut me under
the arms—it was deadly! I read for half an hour, for an hour, for an
hour and a half, for two hours.... 'Come,' I thought; 'thank God, there
are only ten pages left!' And at the end there were four pages that there
was no need to read, and I reckoned to leave them out. 'So there are only
six really,' I thought; 'that is, only six pages left to read.' But, only
fancy, I chanced to glance before me, and, sitting in the front row, side
by side, were a general with a ribbon on his breast and a bishop. The poor
beggars were numb with boredom; they were staring with their eyes wide
open to keep awake, and yet they were trying to put on an expression of
attention and to pretend that they understood what I was saying and liked
it. 'Well,' I thought, 'since you like it you shall have it! I'll pay you
out;' so I just gave them those four pages too."
As is usual with ironical people, when he talks nothing in his face smiles
but his eyes and eyebrows. At such times there is no trace of hatred or
spite in his eyes, but a great deal of humour, and that peculiar fox-like
slyness which is only to be noticed in very observant people. Since I am
speaking about his eyes, I notice another peculiarity in them. When he
takes a glass from Katya, or listens to her speaking, or looks after her
as she goes out of the room for a moment, I notice in his eyes something
gentle, beseeching, pure....
The maid-servant takes away the samovar and puts on the table a large
piece of cheese, some fruit, and a bottle of Crimean champagne—a
rather poor wine of which Katya had grown fond in the Crimea. Mihail
Fyodorovitch takes two packs of cards off the whatnot and begins to play
patience. According to him, some varieties of patience require great
concentration and attention, yet while he lays out the cards he does not
leave off distracting his attention with talk. Katya watches his cards
attentively, and more by gesture than by words helps him in his play. She
drinks no more than a couple of wine-glasses of wine the whole evening; I
drink four glasses, and the rest of the bottle falls to the share of
Mihail Fyodorovitch, who can drink a great deal and never get drunk.
Over our patience we settle various questions, principally of the higher
order, and what we care for most of all—that is, science and
learning—is more roughly handled than anything.
"Science, thank God, has outlived its day," says Mihail Fyodorovitch
emphatically. "Its song is sung. Yes, indeed. Mankind begins to feel
impelled to replace it by something different. It has grown on the soil of
superstition, been nourished by superstition, and is now just as much the
quintessence of superstition as its defunct granddames, alchemy,
metaphysics, and philosophy. And, after all, what has it given to mankind?
Why, the difference between the learned Europeans and the Chinese who have
no science is trifling, purely external. The Chinese know nothing of
science, but what have they lost thereby?"
"Flies know nothing of science, either," I observe, "but what of that?"
"There is no need to be angry, Nikolay Stepanovitch. I only say this here
between ourselves... I am more careful than you think, and I am not going
to say this in public—God forbid! The superstition exists in the
multitude that the arts and sciences are superior to agriculture,
commerce, superior to handicrafts. Our sect is maintained by that
superstition, and it is not for you and me to destroy it. God forbid!"
After patience the younger generation comes in for a dressing too.
"Our audiences have degenerated," sighs Mihail Fyodorovitch. "Not to speak
of ideals and all the rest of it, if only they were capable of work and
rational thought! In fact, it's a case of 'I look with mournful eyes on
the young men of today.'"
"Yes; they have degenerated horribly," Katya agrees. "Tell me, have you
had one man of distinction among them for the last five or ten years?"
"I don't know how it is with the other professors, but I can't remember
any among mine."
"I have seen in my day many of your students and young scientific men and
many actors—well, I have never once been so fortunate as to meet—I
won't say a hero or a man of talent, but even an interesting man. It's all
the same grey mediocrity, puffed up with self-conceit."
All this talk of degeneration always affects me as though I had
accidentally overheard offensive talk about my own daughter. It offends me
that these charges are wholesale, and rest on such worn-out commonplaces,
on such wordy vapourings as degeneration and absence of ideals, or on
references to the splendours of the past. Every accusation, even if it is
uttered in ladies' society, ought to be formulated with all possible
definiteness, or it is not an accusation, but idle disparagement, unworthy
of decent people.
I am an old man, I have been lecturing for thirty years, but I notice
neither degeneration nor lack of ideals, and I don't find that the present
is worse than the past. My porter Nikolay, whose experience of this
subject has its value, says that the students of today are neither better
nor worse than those of the past.
If I were asked what I don't like in my pupils of today, I should answer
the question, not straight off and not at length, but with sufficient
definiteness. I know their failings, and so have no need to resort to
vague generalities. I don't like their smoking, using spirituous
beverages, marrying late, and often being so irresponsible and careless
that they will let one of their number be starving in their midst while
they neglect to pay their subscriptions to the Students' Aid Society. They
don't know modern languages, and they don't express themselves correctly
in Russian; no longer ago than yesterday my colleague, the professor of
hygiene, complained to me that he had to give twice as many lectures,
because the students had a very poor knowledge of physics and were utterly
ignorant of meteorology. They are readily carried away by the influence of
the last new writers, even when they are not first-rate, but they take
absolutely no interest in classics such as Shakespeare, Marcus Aurelius,
Epictetus, or Pascal, and this inability to distinguish the great from the
small betrays their ignorance of practical life more than anything. All
difficult questions that have more or less a social character (for
instance the migration question) they settle by studying monographs on the
subject, but not by way of scientific investigation or experiment, though
that method is at their disposal and is more in keeping with their
calling. They gladly become ward-surgeons, assistants, demonstrators,
external teachers, and are ready to fill such posts until they are forty,
though independence, a sense of freedom and personal initiative, are no
less necessary in science than, for instance, in art or commerce. I have
pupils and listeners, but no successors and helpers, and so I love them
and am touched by them, but am not proud of them. And so on, and so on....
Such shortcomings, however numerous they may be, can only give rise to a
pessimistic or fault-finding temper in a faint-hearted and timid man. All
these failings have a casual, transitory character, and are completely
dependent on conditions of life; in some ten years they will have
disappeared or given place to other fresh defects, which are all
inevitable and will in their turn alarm the faint-hearted. The students'
sins often vex me, but that vexation is nothing in comparison with the joy
I have been experiencing now for the last thirty years when I talk to my
pupils, lecture to them, watch their relations, and compare them with
people not of their circle.
Mihail Fyodorovitch speaks evil of everything. Katya listens, and neither
of them notices into what depths the apparently innocent diversion of
finding fault with their neighbours is gradually drawing them. They are
not conscious how by degrees simple talk passes into malicious mockery and
jeering, and how they are both beginning to drop into the habits and
methods of slander.
"Killing types one meets with," says Mihail Fyodorovitch. "I went
yesterday to our friend Yegor Petrovitch's, and there I found a studious
gentleman, one of your medicals in his third year, I believe. Such a
face!... in the Dobrolubov style, the imprint of profound thought on his
brow; we got into talk. 'Such doings, young man,' said I. 'I've read,'
said I, 'that some German—I've forgotten his name—has created
from the human brain a new kind of alkaloid, idiotine.' What do you think?
He believed it, and there was positively an expression of respect on his
face, as though to say, 'See what we fellows can do!' And the other day I
went to the theatre. I took my seat. In the next row directly in front of
me were sitting two men: one of 'us fellows' and apparently a law student,
the other a shaggy-looking figure, a medical student. The latter was as
drunk as a cobbler. He did not look at the stage at all. He was dozing
with his nose on his shirt-front. But as soon as an actor begins loudly
reciting a monologue, or simply raises his voice, our friend starts, pokes
his neighbour in the ribs, and asks, 'What is he saying? Is it elevating?'
'Yes,' answers one of our fellows. 'B-r-r-ravo!' roars the medical
student. 'Elevating! Bravo!' He had gone to the theatre, you see, the
drunken blockhead, not for the sake of art, the play, but for elevation!
He wanted noble sentiments."
Katya listens and laughs. She has a strange laugh; she catches her breath
in rhythmically regular gasps, very much as though she were playing the
accordion, and nothing in her face is laughing but her nostrils. I grow
depressed and don't know what to say. Beside myself, I fire up, leap up
from my seat, and cry:
"Do leave off! Why are you sitting here like two toads, poisoning the air
with your breath? Give over!"
And without waiting for them to finish their gossip I prepare to go home.
And, indeed, it is high time: it is past ten.
"I will stay a little longer," says Mihail Fyodorovitch. "Will you allow
me, Ekaterina Vladimirovna?"
"I will," answers Katya.
"Bene! In that case have up another little bottle."
They both accompany me with candles to the hall, and while I put on my fur
coat, Mihail Fyodorovitch says:
"You have grown dreadfully thin and older looking, Nikolay Stepanovitch.
What's the matter with you? Are you ill?"
"Yes; I am not very well."
"And you are not doing anything for it..." Katya puts in grimly.
"Why don't you? You can't go on like that! God helps those who help
themselves, my dear fellow. Remember me to your wife and daughter, and
make my apologies for not having been to see them. In a day or two, before
I go abroad, I shall come to say good-bye. I shall be sure to. I am going
away next week."
I come away from Katya, irritated and alarmed by what has been said about
my being ill, and dissatisfied with myself. I ask myself whether I really
ought not to consult one of my colleagues. And at once I imagine how my
colleague, after listening to me, would walk away to the window without
speaking, would think a moment, then would turn round to me and, trying to
prevent my reading the truth in his face, would say in a careless tone:
"So far I see nothing serious, but at the same time, collega, I
advise you to lay aside your work...." And that would deprive me of my
Who is without hope? Now that I am diagnosing my illness and prescribing
for myself, from time to time I hope that I am deceived by my own illness,
that I am mistaken in regard to the albumen and the sugar I find, and in
regard to my heart, and in regard to the swellings I have twice noticed in
the mornings; when with the fervour of the hypochondriac I look through
the textbooks of therapeutics and take a different medicine every day, I
keep fancying that I shall hit upon something comforting. All that is
Whether the sky is covered with clouds or the moon and the stars are
shining, I turn my eyes towards it every evening and think that death is
taking me soon. One would think that my thoughts at such times ought to be
deep as the sky, brilliant, striking.... But no! I think about myself,
about my wife, about Liza, Gnekker, the students, people in general; my
thoughts are evil, petty, I am insincere with myself, and at such times my
theory of life may be expressed in the words the celebrated Araktcheev
said in one of his intimate letters: "Nothing good can exist in the world
without evil, and there is more evil than good." That is, everything is
disgusting; there is nothing to live for, and the sixty-two years I have
already lived must be reckoned as wasted. I catch myself in these
thoughts, and try to persuade myself that they are accidental, temporary,
and not deeply rooted in me, but at once I think:
"If so, what drives me every evening to those two toads?"
And I vow to myself that I will never go to Katya's again, though I know I
shall go next evening.
Ringing the bell at the door and going upstairs, I feel that I have no
family now and no desire to bring it back again. It is clear that the new
Araktcheev thoughts are not casual, temporary visitors, but have
possession of my whole being. With my conscience ill at ease, dejected,
languid, hardly able to move my limbs, feeling as though tons were added
to my weight, I get into bed and quickly drop asleep.
Summer comes on and life is changed.
One fine morning Liza comes in to me and says in a jesting tone:
"Come, your Excellency! We are ready."
My Excellency is conducted into the street, and seated in a cab. As I go
along, having nothing to do, I read the signboards from right to left. The
word "Traktir" reads "Ritkart"; that would just suit some baron's family:
Baroness Ritkart. Farther on I drive through fields, by the graveyard,
which makes absolutely no impression on me, though I shall soon lie in it;
then I drive by forests and again by fields. There is nothing of interest.
After two hours of driving, my Excellency is conducted into the lower
storey of a summer villa and installed in a small, very cheerful little
room with light blue hangings.
At night there is sleeplessness as before, but in the morning I do not put
a good face upon it and listen to my wife, but lie in bed. I do not sleep,
but lie in the drowsy, half-conscious condition in which you know you are
not asleep, but dreaming. At midday I get up and from habit sit down at my
table, but I do not work now; I amuse myself with French books in yellow
covers, sent me by Katya. Of course, it would be more patriotic to read
Russian authors, but I must confess I cherish no particular liking for
them. With the exception of two or three of the older writers, all our
literature of today strikes me as not being literature, but a special sort
of home industry, which exists simply in order to be encouraged, though
people do not readily make use of its products. The very best of these
home products cannot be called remarkable and cannot be sincerely praised
without qualification. I must say the same of all the literary novelties I
have read during the last ten or fifteen years; not one of them is
remarkable, and not one of them can be praised without a "but."
Cleverness, a good tone, but no talent; talent, a good tone, but no
cleverness; or talent, cleverness, but not a good tone.
I don't say the French books have talent, cleverness, and a good tone.
They don't satisfy me, either. But they are not so tedious as the Russian,
and it is not unusual to find in them the chief element of artistic
creation—the feeling of personal freedom which is lacking in the
Russian authors. I don't remember one new book in which the author does
not try from the first page to entangle himself in all sorts of conditions
and contracts with his conscience. One is afraid to speak of the naked
body; another ties himself up hand and foot in psychological analysis; a
third must have a "warm attitude to man"; a fourth purposely scrawls whole
descriptions of nature that he may not be suspected of writing with a
purpose.... One is bent upon being middle-class in his work, another must
be a nobleman, and so on. There is intentionalness, circumspection, and
self-will, but they have neither the independence nor the manliness to
write as they like, and therefore there is no creativeness.
All this applies to what is called belles-lettres.
As for serious treatises in Russian on sociology, for instance, on art,
and so on, I do not rea d them simply from timidity. In my childhood and
early youth I had for some reason a terror of doorkeepers and attendants
at the theatre, and that terror has remained with me to this day. I am
afraid of them even now. It is said that we are only afraid of what we do
not understand. And, indeed, it is very difficult to understand why
doorkeepers and theatre attendants are so dignified, haughty, and
majestically rude. I feel exactly the same terror when I read serious
articles. Their extraordinary dignity, their bantering lordly tone, their
familiar manner to foreign authors, their ability to split straws with
dignity—all that is beyond my understanding; it is intimidating and
utterly unlike the quiet, gentlemanly tone to which I am accustomed when I
read the works of our medical and scientific writers. It oppresses me to
read not only the articles written by serious Russians, but even works
translated or edited by them. The pretentious, edifying tone of the
preface; the redundancy of remarks made by the translator, which prevent
me from concentrating my attention; the question marks and "sic" in
parenthesis scattered all over the book or article by the liberal
translator, are to my mind an outrage on the author and on my independence
as a reader.
Once I was summoned as an expert to a circuit court; in an interval one of
my fellow-experts drew my attention to the rudeness of the public
prosecutor to the defendants, among whom there were two ladies of good
education. I believe I did not exaggerate at all when I told him that the
prosecutor s manner was no ruder than that of the authors of serious
articles to one another. Their manners are, indeed, so rude that I cannot
speak of them without distaste. They treat one another and the writers
they criticize either with superfluous respect, at the sacrifice of their
own dignity, or, on the contrary, with far more ruthlessness than I have
shown in my notes and my thoughts in regard to my future son-in-law
Gnekker. Accusations of irrationality, of evil intentions, and, indeed, of
every sort of crime, form an habitual ornament of serious articles. And
that, as young medical men are fond of saying in their monographs, is the
ultima ratio! Such ways must infallibly have an effect on the
morals of the younger generation of writers, and so I am not at all
surprised that in the new works with which our literature has been
enriched during the last ten or fifteen years the heroes drink too much
vodka and the heroines are not over-chaste.
I read French books, and I look out of the window which is open; I can see
the spikes of my garden-fence, two or three scraggy trees, and beyond the
fence the road, the fields, and beyond them a broad stretch of pine-wood.
Often I admire a boy and girl, both flaxen-headed and ragged, who clamber
on the fence and laugh at my baldness. In their shining little eyes I
read, "Go up, go up, thou baldhead!" They are almost the only people who
care nothing for my celebrity or my rank.
Visitors do not come to me every day now. I will only mention the visits
of Nikolay and Pyotr Ignatyevitch. Nikolay usually comes to me on
holidays, with some pretext of business, though really to see me. He
arrives very much exhilarated, a thing which never occurs to him in the
"What have you to tell me?" I ask, going out to him in the hall.
"Your Excellency!" he says, pressing his hand to his heart and looking at
me with the ecstasy of a lover—"your Excellency! God be my witness!
Strike me dead on the spot! Gaudeamus egitur juventus!"
And he greedily kisses me on the shoulder, on the sleeve, and on the
"Is everything going well?" I ask him.
"Your Excellency! So help me God!..."
He persists in grovelling before me for no sort of reason, and soon bores
me, so I send him away to the kitchen, where they give him dinner.
Pyotr Ignatyevitch comes to see me on holidays, too, with the special
object of seeing me and sharing his thoughts with me. He usually sits down
near my table, modest, neat, and reasonable, and does not venture to cross
his legs or put his elbows on the table. All the time, in a soft, even,
little voice, in rounded bookish phrases, he tells me various, to his
mind, very interesting and piquant items of news which he has read in the
magazines and journals. They are all alike and may be reduced to this
type: "A Frenchman has made a discovery; some one else, a German, has
denounced him, proving that the discovery was made in 1870 by some
American; while a third person, also a German, trumps them both by proving
they both had made fools of themselves, mistaking bubbles of air for dark
pigment under the microscope." Even when he wants to amuse me, Pyotr
Ignatyevitch tells me things in the same lengthy, circumstantial manner as
though he were defending a thesis, enumerating in detail the literary
sources from which he is deriving his narrative, doing his utmost to be
accurate as to the date and number of the journals and the name of every
one concerned, invariably mentioning it in full—Jean Jacques Petit,
never simply Petit. Sometimes he stays to dinner with us, and then during
the whole of dinner-time he goes on telling me the same sort of piquant
anecdotes, reducing every one at table to a state of dejected boredom. If
Gnekker and Liza begin talking before him of fugues and counterpoint,
Brahms and Bach, he drops his eyes modestly, and is overcome with
embarrassment; he is ashamed that such trivial subjects should be
discussed before such serious people as him and me.
In my present state of mind five minutes of him is enough to sicken me as
though I had been seeing and hearing him for an eternity. I hate the poor
fellow. His soft, smooth voice and bookish language exhaust me, and his
stories stupefy me.... He cherishes the best of feelings for me, and talks
to me simply in order to give me pleasure, and I repay him by looking at
him as though I wanted to hypnotize him, and think, "Go, go, go!..." But
he is not amenable to thought-suggestion, and sits on and on and on....
While he is with me I can never shake off the thought, "It's possible when
I die he will be appointed to succeed me," and my poor lecture-hall
presents itself to me as an oasis in which the spring is died up; and I am
ungracious, silent, and surly with Pyotr Ignatyevitch, as though he were
to blame for such thoughts, and not I myself. When he begins, as usual,
praising up the German savants, instead of making fun of him
good-humouredly, as I used to do, I mutter sullenly:
"Asses, your Germans!..."
That is like the late Professor Nikita Krylov, who once, when he was
bathing with Pirogov at Revel and vexed at the water's being very cold,
burst out with, "Scoundrels, these Germans!" I behave badly with Pyotr
Ignatyevitch, and only when he is going away, and from the window I catch
a glimpse of his grey hat behind the garden-fence, I want to call out and
say, "Forgive me, my dear fellow!"
Dinner is even drearier than in the winter. Gnekker, whom now I hate and
despise, dines with us almost every day. I used to endure his presence in
silence, now I aim biting remarks at him which make my wife and daughter
blush. Carried away by evil feeling, I often say things that are simply
stupid, and I don't know why I say them. So on one occasion it happened
that I stared a long time at Gnekker, and, a propos of nothing, I
"An eagle may perchance swoop down below a cock,
But never will the fowl soar upwards to the clouds..."
And the most vexatious thing is that the fowl Gnekker shows himself much
cleverer than the eagle professor. Knowing that my wife and daughter are
on his side, he takes up the line of meeting my gibes with condescending
silence, as though to say:
"The old chap is in his dotage; what's the use of talking to him?"
Or he makes fun of me good-naturedly. It is wonderful how petty a man may
become! I am capable of dreaming all dinner-time of how Gnekker will turn
out to be an adventurer, how my wife and Liza will come to see their
mistake, and how I will taunt them—and such absurd thoughts at the
time when I am standing with one foot in the grave!
There are now, too, misunderstandings of which in the old days I had no
idea except from hearsay. Though I am ashamed of it, I will describe one
that occurred the other day after dinner.
I was sitting in my room smoking a pipe; my wife came in as usual, sat
down, and began saying what a good thing it would be for me to go to
Harkov now while it is warm and I have free time, and there find out what
sort of person our Gnekker is.
"Very good; I will go," I assented.
My wife, pleased with me, got up and was going to the door, but turned
back and said:
"By the way, I have another favour to ask of you. I know you will be
angry, but it is my duty to warn you.... Forgive my saying it, Nikolay
Stepanovitch, but all our neighbours and acquaintances have begun talking
about your being so often at Katya's. She is clever and well-educated; I
don't deny that her company may be agreeable; but at your age and with
your social position it seems strange that you should find pleasure in her
society.... Besides, she has such a reputation that..."
All the blood suddenly rushed to my brain, my eyes flashed fire, I leaped
up and, clutching at my head and stamping my feet, shouted in a voice
unlike my own:
"Let me alone! let me alone! let me alone!"
Probably my face was terrible, my voice was strange, for my wife suddenly
turned pale and began shrieking aloud in a despairing voice that was
utterly unlike her own. Liza, Gnekker, then Yegor, came running in at our
"Let me alone!" I cried; "let me alone! Go away!"
My legs turned numb as though they had ceased to exist; I felt myself
falling into someone's arms; for a little while I still heard weeping,
then sank into a swoon which lasted two or three hours.
Now about Katya; she comes to see me every day towards evening, and of
course neither the neighbours nor our acquaintances can avoid noticing it.
She comes in for a minute and carries me off for a drive with her. She has
her own horse and a new chaise bought this summer. Altogether she lives in
an expensive style; she has taken a big detached villa with a large
garden, and has taken all her town retinue with her—two maids, a
coachman... I often ask her:
"Katya, what will you live on when you have spent your father's money?"
"Then we shall see," she answers.
"That money, my dear, deserves to be treated more seriously. It was earned
by a good man, by honest labour."
"You have told me that already. I know it."
At first we drive through the open country, then through the pine-wood
which is visible from my window. Nature seems to me as beautiful as it
always has been, though some evil spirit whispers to me that these pines
and fir trees, birds, and white clouds on the sky, will not notice my
absence when in three or four months I am dead. Katya loves driving, and
she is pleased that it is fine weather and that I am sitting beside her.
She is in good spirits and does not say harsh things.
"You are a very good man, Nikolay Stepanovitch," she says. "You are a rare
specimen, and there isn't an actor who would understand how to play you.
Me or Mihail Fyodorovitch, for instance, any poor actor could do, but not
you. And I envy you, I envy you horribly! Do you know what I stand for?
She ponders for a minute, and then asks me:
"Nikolay Stepanovitch, I am a negative phenomenon! Yes?"
"Yes," I answer.
"H'm! what am I to do?"
What answer was I to make her? It is easy to say "work," or "give your
possessions to the poor," or "know yourself," and because it is so easy to
say that, I don't know what to answer.
My colleagues when they teach therapeutics advise "the individual study of
each separate case." One has but to obey this advice to gain the
conviction that the methods recommended in the textbooks as the best and
as providing a safe basis for treatment turn out to be quite unsuitable in
individual cases. It is just the same in moral ailments.
But I must make some answer, and I say:
"You have too much free time, my dear; you absolutely must take up some
occupation. After all, why shouldn't you be an actress again if it is your
"Your tone and manner suggest that you are a victim. I don't like that, my
dear; it is your own fault. Remember, you began with falling out with
people and methods, but you have done nothing to make either better. You
did not struggle with evil, but were cast down by it, and you are not the
victim of the struggle, but of your own impotence. Well, of course you
were young and inexperienced then; now it may all be different. Yes,
really, go on the stage. You will work, you will serve a sacred art."
"Don't pretend, Nikolay Stepanovitch," Katya interrupts me. "Let us make a
compact once for all; we will talk about actors, actresses, and authors,
but we will let art alone. You are a splendid and rare person, but you
don't know enough about art sincerely to think it sacred. You have no
instinct or feeling for art. You have been hard at work all your life, and
have not had time to acquire that feeling. Altogether... I don't like talk
about art," she goes on nervously. "I don't like it! And, my goodness, how
they have vulgarized it!"
"Who has vulgarized it?"
"They have vulgarized it by drunkenness, the newspapers by their familiar
attitude, clever people by philosophy."
"Philosophy has nothing to do with it."
"Yes, it has. If any one philosophizes about it, it shows he does not
To avoid bitterness I hasten to change the subject, and then sit a long
time silent. Only when we are driving out of the wood and turning towards
Katya's villa I go back to my former question, and say:
"You have still not answered me, why you don't want to go on the stage."
"Nikolay Stepanovitch, this is cruel!" she cries, and suddenly flushes all
over. "You want me to tell you the truth aloud? Very well, if... if you
like it! I have no talent! No talent and... and a great deal of vanity! So
After making this confession she turns her face away from me, and to hide
the trembling of her hands tugs violently at the reins.
As we are driving towards her villa we see Mihail Fyodorovitch walking
near the gate, impatiently awaiting us.
"That Mihail Fyodorovitch again!" says Katya with vexation. "Do rid me of
him, please! I am sick and tired of him... bother him!"
Mihail Fyodorovitch ought to have gone abroad long ago, but he puts off
going from week to week. Of late there have been certain changes in him.
He looks, as it were, sunken, has taken to drinking until he is tipsy, a
thing which never used to happen to him, and his black eyebrows are
beginning to turn grey. When our chaise stops at the gate he does not
conceal his joy and his impatience. He fussily helps me and Katya out,
hurriedly asks questions, laughs, rubs his hands, and that gentle,
imploring, pure expression, which I used to notice only in his eyes, is
now suffused all over his face. He is glad and at the same time he is
ashamed of his gladness, ashamed of his habit of spending every evening
with Katya. And he thinks it necessary to explain his visit by some
obvious absurdity such as: "I was driving by, and I thought I would just
look in for a minute."
We all three go indoors; first we drink tea, then the familiar packs of
cards, the big piece of cheese, the fruit, and the bottle of Crimean
champagne are put upon the table. The subjects of our conversation are not
new; they are just the same as in the winter. We fall foul of the
University, the students, and literature and the theatre; the air grows
thick and stifling with evil speaking, and poisoned by the breath, not of
two toads as in the winter, but of three. Besides the velvety baritone
laugh and the giggle like the gasp of a concertina, the maid who waits
upon us hears an unpleasant cracked "He, he!" like the chuckle of a
general in a vaudeville.
There are terrible nights with thunder, lightning, rain, and wind, such as
are called among the people "sparrow nights." There has been one such
night in my personal life.
I woke up after midnight and leaped suddenly out of bed. It seemed to me
for some reason that I was just immediately going to die. Why did it seem
so? I had no sensation in my body that suggested my immediate death, but
my soul was oppressed with terror, as though I had suddenly seen a vast
menacing glow of fire.
I rapidly struck a light, drank some water straight out of the decanter,
then hurried to the open window. The weather outside was magnificent.
There was a smell of hay and some other very sweet scent. I could see the
spikes of the fence, the gaunt, drowsy trees by the window, the road, the
dark streak of woodland, there was a serene, very bright moon in the sky
and not a single cloud, perfect stillness, not one leaf stirring. I felt
that everything was looking at me and waiting for me to die....
It was uncanny. I closed the window and ran to my bed. I felt for my
pulse, and not finding it in my wrist, tried to find it in my temple, then
in my chin, and again in my wrist, and everything I touched was cold and
clammy with sweat. My breathing came more and more rapidly, my body was
shivering, all my inside was in commotion; I had a sensation on my face
and on my bald head as though they were covered with spiders' webs.
What should I do? Call my family? No; it would be no use. I could not
imagine what my wife and Liza would do when they came in to me.
I hid my head under the pillow, closed my eyes, and waited and waited....
My spine was cold; it seemed to be drawn inwards, and I felt as though
death were coming upon me stealthily from behind.
"Kee-vee! kee-vee!" I heard a sudden shriek in the night's stillness, and
did not know where it was—in my breast or in the street—"Kee-vee!
"My God, how terrible!" I would have drunk some more water, but by then it
was fearful to open my eyes and I was afraid to raise my head. I was
possessed by unaccountable animal terror, and I cannot understand why I
was so frightened: was it that I wanted to live, or that some new unknown
pain was in store for me?
Upstairs, overhead, some one moaned or laughed. I listened. Soon
afterwards there was a sound of footsteps on the stairs. Some one came
hurriedly down, then went up again. A minute later there was a sound of
steps downstairs again; some one stopped near my door and listened.
"Who is there?" I cried.
The door opened. I boldly opened my eyes, and saw my wife. Her face was
pale and her eyes were tear-stained.
"You are not asleep, Nikolay Stepanovitch?" she asked.
"What is it?"
"For God's sake, go up and have a look at Liza; there is something the
matter with her...."
"Very good, with pleasure," I muttered, greatly relieved at not being
alone. "Very good, this minute...."
I followed my wife, heard what she said to me, and was too agitated to
understand a word. Patches of light from her candle danced about the
stairs, our long shadows trembled. My feet caught in the skirts of my
dressing-gown; I gasped for breath, and felt as though something were
pursuing me and trying to catch me from behind.
"I shall die on the spot, here on the staircase," I thought. "On the
spot...." But we passed the staircase, the dark corridor with the Italian
windows, and went into Liza's room. She was sitting on the bed in her
nightdress, with her bare feet hanging down, and she was moaning.
"Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" she was muttering, screwing up her eyes at our
candle. "I can't bear it."
"Liza, my child," I said, "what is it?"
Seeing me, she began crying out, and flung herself on my neck.
"My kind papa!..." she sobbed—"my dear, good papa... my darling, my
pet, I don't know what is the matter with me.... I am miserable!"
She hugged me, kissed me, and babbled fond words I used to hear from her
when she was a child.
"Calm yourself, my child. God be with you," I said. "There is no need to
cry. I am miserable, too."
I tried to tuck her in; my wife gave her water, and we awkwardly stumbled
by her bedside; my shoulder jostled against her shoulder, and meanwhile I
was thinking how we used to give our children their bath together.
"Help her! help her!" my wife implored me. "Do something!"
What could I do? I could do nothing. There was some load on the girl's
heart; but I did not understand, I knew nothing about it, and could only
"It's nothing, it's nothing; it will pass. Sleep, sleep!"
To make things worse, there was a sudden sound of dogs howling, at first
subdued and uncertain, then loud, two dogs howling together. I had never
attached significance to such omens as the howling of dogs or the
shrieking of owls, but on that occasion it sent a pang to my heart, and I
hastened to explain the howl to myself.
"It's nonsense," I thought, "the influence of one organism on another. The
intensely strained condition of my nerves has infected my wife, Liza, the
dog—that is all.... Such infection explains presentiments,
When a little later I went back to my room to write a prescription for
Liza, I no longer thought I should die at once, but only had such a
weight, such a feeling of oppression in my soul that I felt actually sorry
that I had not died on the spot. For a long time I stood motionless in the
middle of the room, pondering what to prescribe for Liza. But the moans
overhead ceased, and I decided to prescribe nothing, and yet I went on
There was a deathlike stillness, such a stillness, as some author has
expressed it, "it rang in one's ears." Time passed slowly; the streaks of
moonlight on the window-sill did not shift their position, but seemed as
though frozen.... It was still some time before dawn.
But the gate in the fence creaked, some one stole in and, breaking a twig
from one of those scraggy trees, cautiously tapped on the window with it.
"Nikolay Stepanovitch," I heard a whisper. "Nikolay Stepanovitch."
I opened the window, and fancied I was dreaming: under the window, huddled
against the wall, stood a woman in a black dress, with the moonlight
bright upon her, looking at me with great eyes. Her face was pale, stern,
and weird-looking in the moonlight, like marble, her chin was quivering.
"It is I," she said—"I... Katya."
In the moonlight all women's eyes look big and black, all people look
taller and paler, and that was probably why I had not recognized her for
the first minute.
"What is it?"
"Forgive me!" she said. "I suddenly felt unbearably miserable... I
couldn't stand it, so came here. There was a light in your window and...
and I ventured to knock.... I beg your pardon. Ah! if you knew how
miserable I am! What are you doing just now?"
"Nothing.... I can't sleep."
"I had a feeling that there was something wrong, but that is nonsense."
Her brows were lifted, her eyes shone with tears, and her whole face was
lighted up with the familiar look of trustfulness which I had not seen for
"Nikolay Stepanovitch," she said imploringly, stretching out both hands to
me, "my precious friend, I beg you, I implore you.... If you don't despise
my affection and respect for you, consent to what I ask of you."
"What is it?"
"Take my money from me!"
"Come! what an idea! What do I want with your money?"
"You'll go away somewhere for your health.... You ought to go for your
health. Will you take it? Yes? Nikolay Stepanovitch darling, yes?"
She looked greedily into my face and repeated: "Yes, you will take it?"
"No, my dear, I won't take it," I said. "Thank you."
She turned her back upon me and bowed her head. Probably I refused her in
a tone which made further conversation about money impossible.
"Go home to bed," I said. "We will see each other tomorrow."
"So you don't consider me your friend?" she asked dejectedly.
"I don't say that. But your money would be no use to me now."
"I beg your pardon..." she said, dropping her voice a whole octave. "I
understand you... to be indebted to a person like me... a retired
actress.... But, good-bye...."
And she went away so quickly that I had not time even to say good-bye.
I am in Harkov.
As it would be useless to contend against my present mood and, indeed,
beyond my power, I have made up my mind that the last days of my life
shall at least be irreproachable externally. If I am unjust in regard to
my wife and daughter, which I fully recognize, I will try and do as she
wishes; since she wants me to go to Harkov, I go to Harkov. Besides, I
have become of late so indifferent to everything that it is really all the
same to me where I go, to Harkov, or to Paris, or to Berditchev.
I arrived here at midday, and have put up at the hotel not far from the
cathedral. The train was jolting, there were draughts, and now I am
sitting on my bed, holding my head and expecting tic douloureux. I ought
to have gone today to see some professors of my acquaintance, but I have
neither strength nor inclination.
The old corridor attendant comes in and asks whether I have brought my
bed-linen. I detain him for five minutes, and put several questions to him
about Gnekker, on whose account I have come here. The attendant turns out
to be a native of Harkov; he knows the town like the fingers of his hand,
but does not remember any household of the surname of Gnekker. I question
him about the estate—the same answer.
The clock in the corridor strikes one, then two, then three.... These last
months in which I am waiting for death seem much longer than the whole of
my life. And I have never before been so ready to resign myself to the
slowness of time as now. In the old days, when one sat in the station and
waited for a train, or presided in an examination-room, a quarter of an
hour would seem an eternity. Now I can sit all night on my bed without
moving, and quite unconcernedly reflect that tomorrow will be followed by
another night as long and colourless, and the day after tomorrow.
In the corridor it strikes five, six, seven.... It grows dark.
There is a dull pain in my cheek, the tic beginning. To occupy myself with
thoughts, I go back to my old point of view, when I was not so
indifferent, and ask myself why I, a distinguished man, a privy
councillor, am sitting in this little hotel room, on this bed with the
unfamiliar grey quilt. Why am I looking at that cheap tin washing-stand
and listening to the whirr of the wretched clock in the corridor? Is all
this in keeping with my fame and my lofty position? And I answer these
questions with a jeer. I am amused by the naivete with which I used in my
youth to exaggerate the value of renown and of the exceptional position
which celebrities are supposed to enjoy. I am famous, my name is
pronounced with reverence, my portrait has been both in the Niva
and in the Illustrated News of the World; I have read my biography
even in a German magazine. And what of all that? Here I am sitting utterly
alone in a strange town, on a strange bed, rubbing my aching cheek with my
hand.... Domestic worries, the hard-heartedness of creditors, the rudeness
of the railway servants, the inconveniences of the passport system, the
expensive and unwholesome food in the refreshment-rooms, the general
rudeness and coarseness in social intercourse—all this, and a great
deal more which would take too long to reckon up, affects me as much as
any working man who is famous only in his alley. In what way, does my
exceptional position find expression? Admitting that I am celebrated a
thousand times over, that I am a hero of whom my country is proud. They
publish bulletins of my illness in every paper, letters of sympathy come
to me by post from my colleagues, my pupils, the general public; but all
that does not prevent me from dying in a strange bed, in misery, in utter
loneliness. Of course, no one is to blame for that; but I in my
foolishness dislike my popularity. I feel as though it had cheated me.
At ten o'clock I fall asleep, and in spite of the tic I sleep soundly, and
should have gone on sleeping if I had not been awakened. Soon after one
came a sudden knock at the door.
"Who is there?"
"You might have waited till tomorrow," I say angrily, taking the telegram
from the attendant. "Now I shall not get to sleep again."
"I am sorry. Your light was burning, so I thought you were not asleep."
I tear open the telegram and look first at the signature. From my wife.
"What does she want?"
"Gnekker was secretly married to Liza yesterday. Return."
I read the telegram, and my dismay does not last long. I am dismayed, not
by what Liza and Gnekker have done, but by the indifference with which I
hear of their marriage. They say philosophers and the truly wise are
indifferent. It is false: indifference is the paralysis of the soul; it is
I go to bed again, and begin trying to think of something to occupy my
mind. What am I to think about? I feel as though everything had been
thought over already and there is nothing which could hold my attention
When daylight comes I sit up in bed with my arms round my knees, and to
pass the time I try to know myself. "Know thyself" is excellent and useful
advice; it is only a pity that the ancients never thought to indicate the
means of following this precept.
When I have wanted to understand somebody or myself I have considered, not
the actions, in which everything is relative, but the desires.
"Tell me what you want, and I will tell you what manner of man you are."
And now I examine myself: what do I want?
I want our wives, our children, our friends, our pupils, to love in us,
not our fame, not the brand and not the label, but to love us as ordinary
men. Anything else? I should like to have had helpers and successors.
Anything else? I should like to wake up in a hundred years' time and to
have just a peep out of one eye at what is happening in science. I should
have liked to have lived another ten years... What further? Why, nothing
further. I think and think, and can think of nothing more. And however
much I might think, and however far my thoughts might travel, it is clear
to me that there is nothing vital, nothing of great importance in my
desires. In my passion for science, in my desire to live, in this sitting
on a strange bed, and in this striving to know myself—in all the
thoughts, feelings, and ideas I form about everything, there is no common
bond to connect it all into one whole. Every feeling and every thought
exists apart in me; and in all my criticisms of science, the theatre,
literature, my pupils, and in all the pictures my imagination draws, even
the most skilful analyst could not find what is called a general idea, or
the god of a living man.
And if there is not that, then there is nothing.
In a state so poverty-stricken, a serious ailment, the fear of death, the
influences of circumstance and men were enough to turn upside down and
scatter in fragments all which I had once looked upon as my theory of
life, and in which I had seen the meaning and joy of my existence. So
there is nothing surprising in the fact that I have over-shadowed the last
months of my life with thoughts and feelings only worthy of a slave and
barbarian, and that now I am indifferent and take no heed of the dawn.
When a man has not in him what is loftier and mightier than all external
impressions a bad cold is really enough to upset his equilibrium and make
him begin to see an owl in every bird, to hear a dog howling in every
sound. And all his pessimism or optimism with his thoughts great and small
have at such times significance as symptoms and nothing more.
I am vanquished. If it is so, it is useless to think, it is useless to
talk. I will sit and wait in silence for what is to come.
In the morning the corridor attendant brings me tea and a copy of the
local newspaper. Mechanically I read the advertisements on the first page,
the leading article, the extracts from the newspapers and journals, the
chronicle of events.... In the latter I find, among other things, the
following paragraph: "Our distinguished savant, Professor Nikolay
Stepanovitch So-and-so, arrived yesterday in Harkov, and is staying in the
Apparently, illustrious names are created to live on their own account,
apart from those that bear them. Now my name is promenading tranquilly
about Harkov; in another three months, printed in gold letters on my
monument, it will shine bright as the sun itself, while I s hall be
already under the moss.
A light tap at the door. Somebody wants me.
"Who is there? Come in."
The door opens, and I step back surprised and hurriedly wrap my
dressing-gown round me. Before me stands Katya.
"How do you do?" she says, breathless with running upstairs. "You didn't
expect me? I have come here, too.... I have come, too!"
She sits down and goes on, hesitating and not looking at me.
"Why don't you speak to me? I have come, too... today.... I found out that
you were in this hotel, and have come to you."
"Very glad to see you," I say, shrugging my shoulders, "but I am
surprised. You seem to have dropped from the skies. What have you come
"Oh... I've simply come."
Silence. Suddenly she jumps up impulsively and comes to me.
"Nikolay Stepanovitch," she says, turning pale and pressing her hands on
her bosom—"Nikolay Stepanovitch, I cannot go on living like this! I
cannot! For God's sake tell me quickly, this minute, what I am to do! Tell
me, what am I to do?"
"What can I tell you?" I ask in perplexity. "I can do nothing."
"Tell me, I beseech you," she goes on, breathing hard and trembling all
over. "I swear that I cannot go on living like this. It's too much for
She sinks on a chair and begins sobbing. She flings her head back, wrings
her hands, taps with her feet; her hat falls off and hangs bobbing on its
elastic; her hair is ruffled.
"Help me! help me!" she implores me. "I cannot go on!"
She takes her handkerchief out of her travelling-bag, and with it pulls
out several letters, which fall from her lap to the floor. I pick them up,
and on one of them I recognize the handwriting of Mihail Fyodorovitch and
accidentally read a bit of a word "passionat..."
"There is nothing I can tell you, Katya," I say.
"Help me!" she sobs, clutching at my hand and kissing it. "You are my
father, you know, my only friend! You are clever, educated; you have lived
so long; you have been a teacher! Tell me, what am I to do?"
"Upon my word, Katya, I don't know...."
I am utterly at a loss and confused, touched by her sobs, and hardly able
"Let us have lunch, Katya," I say, with a forced smile. "Give over
And at once I add in a sinking voice:
"I shall soon be gone, Katya...."
"Only one word, only one word!" she weeps, stretching out her hands to me.
"What am I to do?"
"You are a queer girl, really..." I mutter. "I don't understand it! So
sensible, and all at once crying your eyes out...."
A silence follows. Katya straightens her hair, puts on her hat, then
crumples up the letters and stuffs them in her bag—and all this
deliberately, in silence. Her face, her bosom, and her gloves are wet with
tears, but her expression now is cold and forbidding.... I look at her,
and feel ashamed that I am happier than she. The absence of what my
philosophic colleagues call a general idea I have detected in myself only
just before death, in the decline of my days, while the soul of this poor
girl has known and will know no refuge all her life, all her life!
"Let us have lunch, Katya," I say.
"No, thank you," she answers coldly. Another minute passes in silence. "I
don't like Harkov," I say; "it's so grey here—such a grey town."
"Yes, perhaps.... It's ugly. I am here not for long, passing through. I am
going on today."
"To the Crimea... that is, to the Caucasus."
"Oh! For long?"
"I don't know."
Katya gets up, and, with a cold smile, holds out her hand without looking
I want to ask her, "Then, you won't be at my funeral?" but she does not
look at me; her hand is cold and, as it were, strange. I escort her to the
door in silence. She goes out, walks down the long corridor without
looking back; she knows that I am looking after her, and most likely she
will look back at the turn.
No, she did not look back. I've seen her black dress for the last time:
her steps have died away. Farewell, my treasure!