A.P. Chekhov - The Privy Councillor
AT the beginning of April in 1870 my mother, Klavdia Arhipovna,
the widow of a lieutenant, received from her brother Ivan, a
privy councillor in Petersburg, a letter in which, among other
things, this passage occurred: "My liver trouble forces me to
spend every summer abroad, and as I have not at the moment the
money in hand for a trip to Marienbad, it is very possible, dear
sister, that I may spend this summer with you at Kotchuevko. . .
On reading the letter my mother turned pale and began trembling
all over; then an expression of mingled tears and laughter came
into her face. She began crying and laughing. This conflict of
tears and laughter always reminds me of the flickering and
spluttering of a brightly burning candle when one sprinkles it
with water. Reading the letter once more, mother called together
all the household, and in a voice broken with emotion began
explaining to us that there had been four Gundasov brothers: one
Gundasov had died as a baby; another had gone to the war, and
he, too, was dead; the third, without offence to him be it said,
was an actor; the fourth . . .
"The fourth has risen far above us," my mother brought out
tearfully. "My own brother, we grew up together; and I am all of
a tremble, all of a tremble! . . . A privy councillor with the
rank of a general! How shall I meet him, my angel brother? What
can I, a foolish, uneducated woman, talk to him about? It's
fifteen years since I've seen him! Andryushenka," my mother
turned to me, "you must rejoice, little stupid! It's a piece of
luck for you that God is sending him to us!"
After we had heard a detailed history of the Gundasovs, there
followed a fuss and bustle in the place such as I had been
accustomed to see only before Christmas and Easter. The sky
above and the water in the river were all that escaped;
everything else was subjected to a merciless cleansing,
scrubbing, painting. If the sky had been lower and smaller and
the river had not flowed so swiftly, they would have scoured
them, too, with bath-brick and rubbed them, too, with tow. Our
walls were as white as snow, but they were whitewashed; the
floors were bright and shining, but they were washed every day.
The cat Bobtail (as a small child I had cut off a good quarter
of his tail with the knife used for chopping the sugar, and that
was why he was called Bobtail) was carried off to the kitchen
and put in charge of Anisya; Fedka was told that if any of the
dogs came near the front-door "God would punish him." But no one
was so badly treated as the poor sofas, easy-chairs, and rugs!
They had never, before been so violently beaten as on this
occasion in preparation for our visitor. My pigeons took fright
at the loud thud of the sticks, and were continually flying up
into the sky.
The tailor Spiridon, the only tailor in the whole district who
ventured to make for the gentry, came over from Novostroevka. He
was a hard-working capable man who did not drink and was not
without a certain fancy and feeling for form, but yet he was an
atrocious tailor. His work was ruined by hesitation. . . . The
idea that his cut was not fashionable enough made him alter
everything half a dozen times, walk all the way to the town
simply to study the dandies, and in the end dress us in suits
that even a caricaturist would have called outre and grotesque.
We cut a dash in impossibly narrow trousers and in such short
jackets that we always felt quite abashed in the presence of
This Spiridon spent a long time taking my measure. He measured
me all over lengthways and crossways, as though he meant to put
hoops round me like a barrel; then he spent a long time noting
down my measurements with a thick pencil on a bit of paper, and
ticked off all the measurements with triangular signs. When he
had finished with me he set to work on my tutor, Yegor
Alexyevitch Pobyedimsky. My beloved tutor was then at the stage
when young men watch the growth of their moustache and are
critical of their clothes, and so you can imagine the devout awe
with which Spiridon approached him. Yegor Alexyevitch had to
throw back his head, to straddle his legs like an inverted V,
first lift up his arms, then let them fall. Spiridon measured
him several times, walking round him during the process like a
love-sick pigeon round its mate, going down on one knee, bending
double. . . . My mother, weary, exhausted by her exertions and
heated by ironing, watched these lengthy proceedings, and said:
"Mind now, Spiridon, you will have to answer for it to God if
you spoil the cloth! And it will be the worse for you if you
don't make them fit!"
Mother's words threw Spiridon first into a fever, then into a
perspiration, for he was convinced that he would not make them
fit. He received one rouble twenty kopecks for making my suit,
and for Pobyedimsky's two roubles, but we provided the cloth,
the lining, and the buttons. The price cannot be considered
excessive, as Novostroevka was about seven miles from us, and
the tailor came to fit us four times. When he came to try the
things on and we squeezed ourselves into the tight trousers and
jackets adorned with basting threads, mother always frowned
contemptuously and expressed her surprise:
"Goodness knows what the fashions are coming to nowadays! I am
positively ashamed to look at them. If brother were not used to
Petersburg I would not get you fashionable clothes!"
Spiridon, relieved that the blame was thrown on the fashion and
not on him, shrugged his shoulders and sighed, as though to say:
"There's no help for it; it's the spirit of the age!"
The excitement with which we awaited the arrival of our guest
can only be compared with the strained suspense with which
spiritualists wait from minute to minute the appearance of a
ghost. Mother went about with a sick headache, and was
continually melting into tears. I lost my appetite, slept badly,
and did not learn my lessons. Even in my dreams I was haunted by
an impatient longing to see a general -- that is, a man with
epaulettes and an embroidered collar sticking up to his ears,
and with a naked sword in his hands, exactly like the one who
hung over the sofa in the drawing-room and glared with terrible
black eyes at everybody who dared to look at him. Pobyedimsky
was the only one who felt himself in his element. He was neither
terrified nor delighted, and merely from time to time, when he
heard the history of the Gundasov family, said:
"Yes, it will be pleasant to have some one fresh to talk to."
My tutor was looked upon among us as an exceptional nature. He
was a young man of twenty, with a pimply face, shaggy locks, a
low forehead, and an unusually long nose. His nose was so big
that when he wanted to look close at anything he had to put his
head on one side like a bird. To our thinking, there was not a
man in the province cleverer, more cultivated, or more stylish.
He had left the high-school in the class next to the top, and
had then entered a veterinary college, from which he was
expelled before the end of the first half-year. The reason of
his expulsion he carefully concealed, which enabled any one who
wished to do so to look upon my instructor as an injured and to
some extent a mysterious person. He spoke little, and only of
intellectual subjects; he ate meat during the fasts, and looked
with contempt and condescension on the life going on around him,
which did not prevent him, however, from taking presents, such
as suits of clothes, from my mother, and drawing funny faces
with red teeth on my kites. Mother disliked him for his "pride,"
but stood in awe of his cleverness.
Our visitor did not keep us long waiting. At the beginning of
May two wagon-loads of big boxes arrived from the station. These
boxes looked so majestic that the drivers instinctively took off
their hats as they lifted them down.
"There must be uniforms and gunpowder in those boxes," I
Why "gunpowder"? Probably the conception of a general was
closely connected in my mind with cannons and gunpowder.
When I woke up on the morning of the tenth of May, nurse told me
in a whisper that "my uncle had come." I dressed rapidly, and,
washing after a fashion, flew out of my bedroom without saying
my prayers. In the vestibule I came upon a tall, solid gentleman
with fashionable whiskers and a foppish-looking overcoat. Half
dead with devout awe, I went up to him and, remembering the
ceremonial mother had impressed upon me, I scraped my foot
before him, made a very low bow, and craned forward to kiss his
hand; but the gentleman did not allow me to kiss his hand: he
informed me that he was not my uncle, but my uncle's footman,
Pyotr. The appearance of this Pyotr, far better dressed than
Pobyedimsky or me, excited in me the utmost astonishment, which,
to tell the truth, has lasted to this day. Can such dignified,
respectable people with stern and intellectual faces really be
footmen? And what for?
Pyotr told me that my uncle was in the garden with my mother. I
rushed into the garden.
Nature, knowing nothing of the history of the Gundasov family
and the rank of my uncle, felt far more at ease and
unconstrained than I. There was a clamour going on in the garden
such as one only bears at fairs. Masses of starlings flitting
through the air and hopping about the walks were noisily
chattering as they hunted for cockchafers. There were swarms of
sparrows in the lilac-bushes, which threw their tender, fragrant
blossoms straight in one's face. Wherever one turned, from every
direction came the note of the golden oriole and the shrill cry
of the hoopoe and the red-legged falcon. At any other time I
should have begun chasing dragon-flies or throwing stones at a
crow which was sitting on a low mound under an aspen-tree, with
his blunt beak turned away; but at that moment I was in no mood
for mischief. My heart was throbbing, and I felt a cold sinking
at my stomach; I was preparing myself to confront a gentleman
with epaulettes, with a naked sword, and with terrible eyes!
But imagine my disappointment! A dapper little foppish gentleman
in white silk trousers, with a white cap on his head, was
walking beside my mother in the garden. With his hands behind
him and his head thrown back, every now and then running on
ahead of mother, he looked quite young. There was so much life
and movement in his whole figure that I could only detect the
treachery of age when I came close up behind and saw beneath his
cap a fringe of close-cropped silver hair. Instead of the staid
dignity and stolidity of a general, I saw an almost schoolboyish
nimbleness; instead of a collar sticking up to his ears, an
ordinary light blue necktie. Mother and my uncle were walking in
the avenue talking together. I went softly up to them from
behind, and waited for one of them to look round.
"What a delightful place you have here, Klavdia!" said my uncle.
"How charming and lovely it is! Had I known before that you had
such a charming place, nothing would have induced me to go
abroad all these years."
My uncle stooped down rapidly and sniffed at a tulip. Everything
he saw moved him to rapture and excitement, as though he had
never been in a garden on a sunny day before. The queer man
moved about as though he were on springs, and chattered
incessantly, without allowing mother to utter a single word. All
of a sudden Pobyedimsky came into sight from behind an
elder-tree at the turn of the avenue. His appearance was so
unexpected that my uncle positively started and stepped back a
pace. On this occasion my tutor was attired in his best
Inverness cape with sleeves, in which, especially back-view, he
looked remarkably like a windmill. He had a solemn and majestic
air. Pressing his hat to his bosom in Spanish style, he took a
step towards my uncle and made a bow such as a marquis makes in
a melodrama, bending forward, a little to one side.
"I have the honour to present myself to your high excellency,"
he said aloud: "the teacher and instructor of your nephew,
formerly a pupil of the veterinary institute, and a nobleman by
This politeness on the part of my tutor pleased my mother very
much. She gave a smile, and waited in thrilled suspense to hear
what clever thing he would say next; but my tutor, expecting his
dignified address to be answered with equal dignity -- that is,
that my uncle would say "H'm!" like a general and hold out two
fingers -- was greatly confused and abashed when the latter
laughed genially and shook hands with him. He muttered something
incoherent, cleared his throat, and walked away.
"Come! isn't that charming?" laughed my uncle. "Just look! he
has made his little flourish and thinks he's a very clever
fellow! I do like that -- upon my soul I do! What youthful
aplomb, what life in that foolish flourish! And what boy is
this?" he asked, suddenly turning and looking at me.
"That is my Andryushenka," my mother introduced me, flushing
crimson. "My consolation. . ."
I made a scrape with my foot on the sand and dropped a low bow.
"A fine fellow . . . a fine fellow . . ." muttered my uncle,
taking his hand from my lips and stroking me on the head. "So
your name is Andrusha? Yes, yes. . . . H'm! . . . upon my soul!
. . . Do you learn lessons?"
My mother, exaggerating and embellishing as all mothers do,
began to describe my achievements in the sciences and the
excellence of my behaviour, and I walked round my uncle and,
following the ceremonial laid down for me, I continued making
low bows. Then my mother began throwing out hints that with my
remarkable abilities it would not be amiss for me to get a
government nomination to the cadet school; but at the point when
I was to have burst into tears and begged for my uncle's
protection, my uncle suddenly stopped and flung up his hands in
"My goo-oodness! What's that?" he asked.
Tatyana Ivanovna, the wife of our bailiff, Fyodor Petrovna, was
coming towards us. She was carrying a starched white petticoat
and a long ironing-board. As she passed us she looked shyly at
the visitor through her eyelashes and flushed crimson.
"Wonders will never cease . . ." my uncle filtered through his
teeth, looking after her with friendly interest. "You have a
fresh surprise at every step, sister . . . upon my soul!"
"She's a beauty . . ." said mother. "They chose her as a bride
for Fyodor, though she lived over seventy miles from here. . .
Not every one would have called Tatyana a beauty. She was a
plump little woman of twenty, with black eyebrows and a graceful
figure, always rosy and attractive-looking, but in her face and
in her whole person there was not one striking feature, not one
bold line to catch the eye, as though nature had lacked
inspiration and confidence when creating her. Tatyana Ivanovna
was shy, bashful, and modest in her behaviour; she moved softly
and smoothly, said little, seldom laughed, and her whole life
was as regular as her face and as flat as her smooth, tidy hair.
My uncle screwed up his eyes looking after her, and smiled.
Mother looked intently at his smiling face and grew serious.
"And so, brother, you've never married!" she sighed.
"No; I've not married."
"Why not?" asked mother softly.
"How can I tell you? It has happened so. In my youth I was too
hard at work, I had no time to live, and when I longed to live
-- I looked round -- and there I had fifty years on my back
already. I was too late! However, talking about it . . . is
My mother and my uncle both sighed at once and walked on, and I
left them and flew off to find my tutor, that I might share my
impressions with him. Pobyedimsky was standing in the middle of
the yard, looking majestically at the heavens.
"One can see he is a man of culture!" he said, twisting his head
round. "I hope we shall get on together."
An hour later mother came to us.
"I am in trouble, my dears!" she began, sighing. "You see
brother has brought a valet with him, and the valet, God bless
him, is not one you can put in the kitchen or in the hall; we
must give him a room apart. I can't think what I am to do! I
tell you what, children, couldn't you move out somewhere -- to
Fyodor's lodge, for instance -- and give your room to the valet?
What do you say?"
We gave our ready consent, for living in the lodge was a great
deal more free than in the house, under mother's eye.
"It's a nuisance, and that's a fact!" said mother. "Brother says
he won't have dinner in the middle of the day, but between six
and seven, as they do in Petersburg. I am simply distracted with
worry! By seven o'clock the dinner will be done to rags in the
oven. Really, men don't understand anything about housekeeping,
though they have so much intellect. Oh, dear! we shall have to
cook two dinners every day! You will have dinner at midday as
before, children, while your poor old mother has to wait till
seven, for the sake of her brother."
Then my mother heaved a deep sigh, bade me try and please my
uncle, whose coming was a piece of luck for me for which we must
thank God, and hurried off to the kitchen. Pobyedimsky and I
moved into the lodge the same day. We were installed in a room
which formed the passage from the entry to the bailiff's
Contrary to my expectations, life went on just as before,
drearily and monotonously, in spite of my uncle's arrival and
our move into new quarters. We were excused lessons "on account
of the visitor." Pobyedimsky, who never read anything or
occupied himself in any way, spent most of his time sitting on
his bed, with his long nose thrust into the air, thinking.
Sometimes he would get up, try on his new suit, and sit down
again to relapse into contemplation and silence. Only one thing
worried him, the flies, which he used mercilessly to squash
between his hands. After dinner he usually "rested," and his
snores were a cause of annoyance to the whole household. I ran
about the garden from morning to night, or sat in the lodge
sticking my kites together. For the first two or three weeks we
did not see my uncle often. For days together he sat in his own
room working, in spite of the flies and the heat. His
extraordinary capacity for sitting as though glued to his table
produced upon us the effect of an inexplicable conjuring trick.
To us idlers, knowing nothing of systematic work, his industry
seemed simply miraculous. Getting up at nine, he sat down to his
table, and did not leave it till dinner-time; after dinner he
set to work again, and went on till late at night. Whenever I
peeped through the keyhole I invariably saw the same thing: my
uncle sitting at the table working. The work consisted in his
writing with one hand while he turned over the leaves of a book
with the other, and, strange to say, he kept moving all over --
swinging his leg as though it were a pendulum, whistling, and
nodding his head in time. He had an extremely careless and
frivolous expression all the while, as though he were not
working, but playing at noughts and crosses. I always saw him
wearing a smart short jacket and a jauntily tied cravat, and he
always smelt, even through the keyhole, of delicate feminine
perfumery. He only left his room for dinner, but he ate little.
"I can't make brother out!" mother complained of him. "Every day
we kill a turkey and pigeons on purpose for him, I make a
compotewith my own hands, and he eats a plateful of broth and a
bit of meat the size of a finger and gets up from the table. I
begin begging him to eat; he comes back and drinks a glass of
milk. And what is there in that, in a glass of milk? It's no
better than washing up water! You may die of a diet like that. .
. . If I try to persuade him, he laughs and makes a joke of it.
. . . No; he does not care for our fare, poor dear!"
We spent the evenings far more gaily than the days. As a rule,
by the time the sun was setting and long shadows were lying
across the yard, we -- that is, Tatyana Ivanovna, Pobyedimsky,
and I -- were sitting on the steps of the lodge. We did not talk
till it grew quite dusk. And, indeed, what is one to talk of
when every subject has been talked over already? There was only
one thing new, my uncle's arrival, and even that subject was
soon exhausted. My tutor never took his eyes off Tatyana
Ivanovna 's face, and frequently heaved deep sighs. . . . At the
time I did not understand those sighs, and did not try to fathom
their significance; now they explain a great deal to me.
When the shadows merged into one thick mass of shade, the
bailiff Fyodor would come in from shooting or from the field.
This Fyodor gave me the impression of being a fierce and even a
terrible man. The son of a Russianized gipsy from Izyumskoe,
swarthy-faced and curly-headed, with big black eyes and a matted
beard, he was never called among our Kotchuevko peasants by any
name but "The Devil." And, indeed, there was a great deal of the
gipsy about him apart from his appearance. He could not, for
instance, stay at home, and went off for days together into the
country or into the woods to shoot. He was gloomy, ill-humoured,
taciturn, was afraid of nobody, and refused to recognize any
authority. He was rude to mother, addressed me familiarly, and
was contemptuous of Pobyedimsky's learning. All this we forgave
him, looking upon him as a hot-tempered and nervous man; mother
liked him because, in spite of his gipsy nature, he was ideally
honest and industrious. He loved his Tatyana Ivanovna
passionately, like a gipsy, but this love took in him a gloomy
form, as though it cost him suffering. He was never affectionate
to his wife in our presence, but simply rolled his eyes angrily
at her and twisted his mouth.
When he came in from the fields he would noisily and angrily put
down his gun, would come out to us on the steps, and sit down
beside his wife. After resting a little, he would ask his wife a
few questions about household matters, and then sink into
"Let us sing," I would suggest.
My tutor would tune his guitar, and in a deep deacon's bass
strike up "In the midst of the valley." We would begin singing.
My tutor took the bass, Fyodor sang in a hardly audible tenor,
while I sang soprano in unison with Tatyana Ivanovna.
When the whole sky was covered with stars and the frogs had left
off croaking, they would bring in our supper from the kitchen.
We went into the lodge and sat down to the meal. My tutor and
the gipsy ate greedily, with such a sound that it was hard to
tell whether it was the bones crunching or their jaws, and
Tatyana Ivanovna and I scarcely succeeded in getting our share.
After supper the lodge was plunged in deep sleep.
One evening, it was at the end of May, we were sitting on the
steps, waiting for supper. A shadow suddenly fell across us, and
Gundasov stood before us as though he had sprung out of the
earth. He looked at us for a long time, then clasped his hands
and laughed gaily.
"An idyll!" he said. "They sing and dream in the moonlight! It's
charming, upon my soul! May I sit down and dream with you?"
We looked at one another and said nothing. My uncle sat down on
the bottom step, yawned, and looked at the sky. A silence
followed. Pobyedimsky, who had for a long time been wanting to
talk to somebody fresh, was delighted at the opportunity, and
was the first to break the silence. He had only one subject for
intellectual conversation, the epizootic diseases. It sometimes
happens that after one has been in an immense crowd, only some
one countenance of the thousands remains long imprinted on the
memory; in the same way, of all that Pobyedimsky had heard,
during his six months at the veterinary institute, he remembered
only one passage:
"The epizootics do immense damage to the stock of the country.
It is the duty of society to work hand in hand with the
government in waging war upon them."
Before saying this to Gundasov, my tutor cleared his throat
three times, and several times, in his excitement, wrapped
himself up in his Inverness. On hearing about the epizootics, my
uncle looked intently at my tutor and made a sound between a
snort and a laugh.
"Upon my soul, that's charming!" he said, scrutinizing us as
though we were mannequins. "This is actually life. . . . This is
really what reality is bound to be. Why are you silent, Pelagea
Ivanovna?" he said, addressing Tatyana Ivanovna.
She coughed, overcome with confusion.
"Talk, my friends, sing . . . play! . . . Don't lose time. You
know, time, the rascal, runs away and waits for no man! Upon my
soul, before you have time to look round, old age is upon you. .
. . Then it is too late to live! That's how it is, Pelagea
Ivanovna. . . . We mustn't sit still and be silent. . . ."
At that point supper was brought out from the kitchen. Uncle
went into the lodge with us, and to keep us company ate five
curd fritters and the wing of a duck. He ate and looked at us.
He was touched and delighted by us all. Whatever silly nonsense
my precious tutor talked, and whatever Tatyana Ivanovna did, he
thought charming and delightful. When after supper Tatyana
Ivanovna sat quietly down and took up her knitting, he kept his
eyes fixed on her fingers and chatted away without ceasing.
"Make all the haste you can to live, my friends. . ." he said.
"God forbid you should sacrifice the present for the future!
There is youth, health, fire in the present; the future is smoke
and deception! As soon as you are twenty begin to live."
Tatyana Ivanovna dropped a knitting-needle. My uncle jumped up,
picked up the needle, and handed it to Tatyana Ivanovna with a
bow, and for the first time in my life I learnt that there were
people in the world more refined than Pobyedimsky.
"Yes . . ." my uncle went on, "love, marry, do silly things.
Foolishness is a great deal more living and healthy than our
straining and striving after rational life."
My uncle talked a great deal, so much that he bored us; I sat on
a box listening to him and dropping to sleep. It distressed me
that he did not once all the evening pay attention to me. He
left the lodge at two o'clock, when, overcome with drowsiness, I
was sound asleep.
From that time forth my uncle took to coming to the lodge every
evening. He sang with us, had supper with us, and always stayed
on till two o'clock in the morning, chatting incessantly, always
about the same subject. His evening and night work was given up,
and by the end of June, when the privy councillor had learned to
eat mother's turkey and compote, his work by day was abandoned
too. My uncle tore himself away from his table and plunged into
"life." In the daytime he walked up and down the garden, he
whistled to the workmen and hindered them from working, making
them tell him their various histories. When his eye fell on
Tatyana Ivanovna he ran up to her, and, if she were carrying
anything, offered his assistance, which embarrassed her
As the summer advanced my uncle grew more and more frivolous,
volatile, and careless. Pobyedimsky was completely disillusioned
in regard to him.
"He is too one-sided," he said. "There is nothing to show that
he is in the very foremost ranks of the service. And he doesn't
even know how to talk. At every word it's 'upon my soul.' No, I
don't like him!"
From the time that my uncle began visiting the lodge there was a
noticeable change both in Fyodor and my tutor. Fyodor gave up
going out shooting, came home early, sat more taciturn than
ever, and stared with particular ill-humour at his wife. In my
uncle's presence my tutor gave up talking about epizootics,
frowned, and even laughed sarcastically.
"Here comes our little bantam cock!" he growled on one occasion
when my uncle was coming into the lodge.
I put down this change in them both to their being offended with
my uncle. My absent-minded uncle mixed up their names, and to
the very day of his departure failed to distinguish which was my
tutor and which was Tatyana Ivanovna's husband. Tatyana Ivanovna
herself he sometimes called Nastasya, sometimes Pelagea, and
sometimes Yevdokia. Touched and delighted by us, he laughed and
behaved exactly as though in the company of small children. . .
. All this, of course, might well offend young men. It was not a
case of offended pride, however, but, as I realize now, subtler
I remember one evening I was sitting on the box struggling with
sleep. My eyelids felt glued together and my body, tired out by
running about all day, drooped sideways. But I struggled against
sleep and tried to look on. It was about midnight. Tatyana
Ivanovna, rosy and unassuming as always, was sitting at a little
table sewing at her husband's shirt. Fyodor, sullen and gloomy,
was staring at her from one corner, and in the other sat
Pobyedimsky, snorting angrily and retreating into the high
collar of his shirt. My uncle was walking up and down the room
thinking. Silence reigned; nothing was to be heard but the
rustling of the linen in Tatyana Ivanovna's hands. Suddenly my
uncle stood still before Tatyana Ivanovna, and said:
"You are all so young, so fresh, so nice, you live so peacefully
in this quiet place, that I envy you. I have become attached to
your way of life here; my heart aches when I remember I have to
go away. . . . You may believe in my sincerity!"
Sleep closed my eyes and I lost myself. When some sound waked
me, my uncle was standing before Tatyana Ivanovna, looking at
her with a softened expression. His cheeks were flushed.
"My life has been wasted," he said. "I have not lived! Your
young face makes me think of my own lost youth, and I should be
ready to sit here watching you to the day of my death. It would
be a pleasure to me to take you with me to Petersburg."
"What for?" Fyodor asked in a husky voice.
"I should put her under a glass case on my work-table. I should
admire her and show her to other people. You know, Pelagea
Ivanovna, we have no women like you there. Among us there is
wealth, distinction, sometimes beauty, but we have not this true
sort of life, this healthy serenity. . . ."
My uncle sat down facing Tatyana Ivanovna and took her by the
"So you won't come with me to Petersburg?" he laughed. "In that
case give me your little hand. . . . A charming little hand! . .
. You won't give it? Come, you miser! let me kiss it, anyway. .
At that moment there was the scrape of a chair. Fyodor jumped
up, and with heavy, measured steps went up to his wife. His face
was pale, grey, and quivering. He brought his fist down on the
table with a bang, and said in a hollow voice:
"I won't allow it!"
At the same moment Pobyedimsky jumped up from his chair. He,
too, pale and angry, went up to Tatyana Ivanovna, and he, too,
struck the table with his fist.
"I . . . I won't allow it!" he said.
"What, what's the matter?" asked my uncle in surprise.
"I won't allow it!" repeated Fyodor, banging on the table.
My uncle jumped up and blinked nervously. He tried to speak, but
in his amazement and alarm could not utter a word; with an
embarrassed smile, he shuffled out of the lodge with the hurried
step of an old man, leaving his hat behind. When, a little
later, my mother ran into the lodge, Fyodor and Pobyedimsky were
still hammering on the table like blacksmiths and repeating, "I
won't allow it!"
"What has happened here?" asked mother. "Why has my brother been
taken ill? What's the matter?"
Looking at Tatyana's pale, frightened face and at her infuriated
husband, mother probably guessed what was the matter. She sighed
and shook her head.
"Come! give over banging on the table!" she said. "Leave off,
Fyodor! And why are you thumping, Yegor Alexyevitch? What have
you got to do with it?"
Pobyedimsky was startled and confused. Fyodor looked intently at
him, then at his wife, and began walking about the room. When
mother had gone out of the lodge, I saw what for long afterwards
I looked upon as a dream. I saw Fyodor seize my tutor, lift him
up in the air, and thrust him out of the door.
When I woke up in the morning my tutor's bed was empty. To my
question where he was nurse told me in a whisper that he had
been taken off early in the morning to the hospital, as his arm
was broken. Distressed at this intelligence and remembering the
scene of the previous evening, I went out of doors. It was a
grey day. The sky was covered with storm-clouds and there was a
wind blowing dust, bits of paper, and feathers along the ground.
. . . It felt as though rain were coming. There was a look of
boredom in the servants and in the animals. When I went into the
house I was told not to make such a noise with my feet, as
mother was ill and in bed with a migraine. What was I to do? I
went outside the gate, sat down on the little bench there, and
fell to trying to discover the meaning of what I had seen and
heard the day before. From our gate there was a road which,
passing the forge and the pool which never dried up, ran into
the main road. I looked at the telegraph-posts, about which
clouds of dust were whirling, and at the sleepy birds sitting on
the wires, and I suddenly felt so dreary that I began to cry.
A dusty wagonette crammed full of townspeople, probably going to
visit the shrine, drove by along the main road. The wagonette
was hardly out of sight when a light chaise with a pair of
horses came into view. In it was Akim Nikititch, the police
inspector, standing up and holding on to the coachman's belt. To
my great surprise, the chaise turned into our road and flew by
me in at the gate. While I was puzzling why the police inspector
had come to see us, I heard a noise, and a carriage with three
horses came into sight on the road. In the carriage stood the
police captain, directing his coachman towards our gate.
"And why is he coming?" I thought, looking at the dusty police
captain. "Most probably Pobyedimsky has complained of Fyodor to
him, and they have come to take him to prison."
But the mystery was not so easily solved. The police inspector
and the police captain were only the first instalment, for five
minutes had scarcely passed when a coach drove in at our gate.
It dashed by me so swiftly that I could only get a glimpse of a
Lost in conjecture and full of misgivings, I ran to the house.
In the passage first of all I saw mother; she was pale and
looking with horror towards the door, from which came the sounds
of men's voices. The visitors had taken her by surprise in the
very throes of migraine.
"Who has come, mother?" I asked.
"Sister," I heard my uncle's voice, "will you send in something
to eat for the governor and me?"
"It is easy to say 'something to eat,' " whispered my mother,
numb with horror. "What have I time to get ready now? I am put
to shame in my old age!"
Mother clutched at her head and ran into the kitchen. The
governor's sudden visit stirred and overwhelmed the whole
household. A ferocious slaughter followed. A dozen fowls, five
turkeys, eight ducks, were killed, and in the fluster the old
gander, the progenitor of our whole flock of geese and a great
favourite of mother's, was beheaded. The coachmen and the cook
seemed frenzied, and slaughtered birds at random, without
distinction of age or breed. For the sake of some wretched sauce
a pair of valuable pigeons, as dear to me as the gander was to
mother, were sacrificed. It was a long while before I could
forgive the governor their death.
In the evening, when the governor and his suite, after a
sumptuous dinner, had got into their carriages and driven away,
I went into the house to look at the remains of the feast.
Glancing into the drawing-room from the passage, I saw my uncle
and my mother. My uncle, with his hands behind his back, was
walking nervously up and down close to the wall, shrugging his
shoulders. Mother, exhausted and looking much thinner, was
sitting on the sofa and watching his movements with heavy eyes.
"Excuse me, sister, but this won't do at all," my uncle
grumbled, wrinkling up his face. "I introduced the governor to
you, and you didn't offer to shake hands. You covered him with
confusion, poor fellow! No, that won't do. . . . Simplicity is a
very good thing, but there must be limits to it. . . . Upon my
soul! And then that dinner! How can one give people such things?
What was that mess, for instance, that they served for the
"That was duck with sweet sauce . . ." mother answered softly.
"Duck! Forgive me, sister, but . . . but here I've got
heartburn! I am ill!"
My uncle made a sour, tearful face, and went on:
"It was the devil sent that governor! As though I wanted his
visit! Pff! . . . heartburn! I can't work or sleep . . . I am
completely out of sorts. . . . And I can't understand how you
can live here without anything to do . . . in this boredom! Here
I've got a pain coming under my shoulder-blade! . . ."
My uncle frowned, and walked about more rapidly than ever.
"Brother," my mother inquired softly, "what would it cost to go
"At least three thousand . . ." my uncle answered in a tearful
voice. "I would go, but where am I to get it? I haven't a
farthing. Pff! . . . heartburn!"
My uncle stopped to look dejectedly at the grey, overcast
prospect from the window, and began pacing to and fro again.
A silence followed. . . . Mother looked a long while at the
ikon, pondering something, then she began crying, and said:
"I'll give you the three thousand, brother. . . ."
Three days later the majestic boxes went off to the station, and
the privy councillor drove off after them. As he said good-bye
to mother he shed tears, and it was a long time before he took
his lips from her hands, but when he got into his carriage his
face beamed with childlike pleasure. . . . Radiant and happy, he
settled himself comfortably, kissed his hand to my mother, who
was crying, and all at once his eye was caught by me. A look of
the utmost astonishment came into his face.
"What boy is this?" he asked.
My mother, who had declared my uncle's coming was a piece of
luck for which I must thank God, was bitterly mortified at this
question. I was in no mood for questions. I looked at my uncle's
happy face, and for some reason I felt fearfully sorry for him.
I could not resist jumping up to the carriage and hugging that
frivolous man, weak as all men are. Looking into his face and
wanting to say something pleasant, I asked:
"Uncle, have you ever been in a battle?"
"Ah, the dear boy . . ." laughed my uncle, kissing me. "A
charming boy, upon my soul! How natural, how living it all is,
upon my soul! . . ."
The carriage set off. . . . I looked after him, and long
afterwards that farewell "upon my soul" was ringing in my ears.