A.P. Chekhov - Volodya
AT five o'clock one Sunday afternoon in summer, Volodya, a
plain, shy, sickly-looking lad of seventeen, was sitting in the
arbour of the Shumihins' country villa, feeling dreary. His
despondent thought flowed in three directions. In the first
place, he had next day, Monday, an examination in mathematics;
he knew that if he did not get through the written examination
on the morrow, he would be expelled, for he had already been two
years in the sixth form and had two and three-quarter marks for
algebra in his annual report. In the second place, his presence
at the villa of the Shumihins, a wealthy family with
aristocratic pretensions, was a continual source of
mortification to his amour-propre. It seemed to him that Madame
Shumihin looked upon him and his maman as poor relations and
dependents, that they laughed at his maman and did not respect
her. He had on one occasion accidently overheard Madame Shumihin,
in the verandah, telling her cousin Anna Fyodorovna that his
maman still tried to look young and got herself up, that she
never paid her losses at cards, and had a partiality for other
people's shoes and tobacco. Every day Volodya besought his maman
not to go to the Shumihins', and drew a picture of the
humiliating part she played with these gentlefolk. He tried to
persuade her, said rude things, but she -- a frivolous, pampered
woman, who had run through two fortunes, her own and her
husband's, in her time, and always gravitated towards
acquaintances of high rank -- did not understand him, and twice
a week Volodya had to accompany her to the villa he hated.
In the third place, the youth could not for one instant get rid
of a strange, unpleasant feeling which was absolutely new to
him. . . . It seemed to him that he was in love with Anna
Fyodorovna, the Shumihins' cousin, who was staying with them.
She was a vivacious, loud-voiced, laughter-loving, healthy, and
vigorous lady of thirty, with rosy cheeks, plump shoulders, a
plump round chin and a continual smile on her thin lips. She was
neither young nor beautiful -- Volodya knew that perfectly well;
but for some reason he could not help thinking of her, looking
at her while she shrugged her plump shoulders and moved her flat
back as she played croquet, or after prolonged laughter and
running up and down stairs, sank into a low chair, and, half
closing her eyes and gasping for breath, pretended that she was
stifling and could not breathe. She was married. Her husband, a
staid and dignified architect, came once a week to the villa,
slept soundly, and returned to town. Volodya's strange feeling
had begun with his conceiving an unaccountable hatred for the
architect, and feeling relieved every time he went back to town.
Now, sitting in the arbour, thinking of his examination next
day, and of his maman, at whom they laughed, he felt an intense
desire to see Nyuta (that was what the Shumihins called Anna
Fyodorovna), to hear her laughter and the rustle of her dress. .
. . This desire was not like the pure, poetic love of which he
read in novels and about which he dreamed every night when he
went to bed; it was strange, incomprehensible; he was ashamed of
it, and afraid of it as of something very wrong and impure,
something which it was disagreeable to confess even to himself.
"It's not love," he said to himself. "One can't fall in love
with women of thirty who are married. It is only a little
intrigue. . . . Yes, an intrigue. . . ."
Pondering on the "intrigue," he thought of his uncontrollable
shyness, his lack of moustache, his freckles, his narrow eyes,
and put himself in his imagination side by side with Nyuta, and
the juxtaposition seemed to him impossible; then he made haste
to imagine himself bold, handsome, witty, dressed in the latest
When his dreams were at their height, as he sat huddled together
and looking at the ground in a dark corner of the arbour, he
heard the sound of light footsteps. Some one was coming slowly
along the avenue. Soon the steps stopped and something white
gleamed in the entrance.
"Is there any one here?" asked a woman's voice.
Volodya recognised the voice, and raised his head in a fright.
"Who is here?" asked Nyuta, going into the arbour. "Ah, it is
you, Volodya? What are you doing here? Thinking? And how can you
go on thinking, thinking, thinking? . . . That's the way to go
out of your mind!"
Volodya got up and looked in a dazed way at Nyuta. She had only
just come back from bathing. Over her shoulder there was hanging
a sheet and a rough towel, and from under the white silk
kerchief on her head he could see the wet hair sticking to her
forehead. There was the cool damp smell of the bath-house and of
almond soap still hanging about her. She was out of breath from
running quickly. The top button of her blouse was undone, so
that the boy saw her throat and bosom.
"Why don't you say something?" said Nyuta, looking Volodya up
and down. "It's not polite to be silent when a lady talks to
you. What a clumsy seal you are though, Volodya! You always sit,
saying nothing, thinking like some philosopher. There's not a
spark of life or fire in you! You are really horrid! . . . At
your age you ought to be living, skipping, and jumping,
chattering, flirting, falling in love."
Volodya looked at the sheet that was held by a plump white hand,
and thought. . . .
"He's mute," said Nyuta, with wonder; "it is strange, really. .
. . Listen! Be a man! Come, you might smile at least! Phew, the
horrid philosopher!" she laughed. "But do you know, Volodya, why
you are such a clumsy seal? Because you don't devote yourself to
the ladies. Why don't you? It's true there are no girls here,
but there is nothing to prevent your flirting with the married
ladies! Why don't you flirt with me, for instance?"
Volodya listened and scratched his forehead in acute and painful
"It's only very proud people who are silent and love solitude,"
Nyuta went on, pulling his hand away from his forehead. "You are
proud, Volodya. Why do you look at me like that from under your
brows? Look me straight in the face, if you please! Yes, now
then, clumsy seal!"
Volodya made up his mind to speak. Wanting to smile, he twitched
his lower lip, blinked, and again put his hand to his forehead.
"I . . . I love you," he said.
Nyuta raised her eyebrows in surprise, and laughed.
"What do I hear?" she sang, as prima-donnas sing at the opera
when they hear something awful. "What? What did you say? Say it
again, say it again. . . ."
"I . . . I love you!" repeated Volodya.
And without his will's having any part in his action, without
reflection or understanding, he took half a step towards Nyuta
and clutched her by the arm. Everything was dark before his
eyes, and tears came into them. The whole world was turned into
one big, rough towel which smelt of the bathhouse.
"Bravo, bravo!" he heard a merry laugh. "Why don't you speak? I
want you to speak! Well?"
Seeing that he was not prevented from holding her arm, Volodya
glanced at Nyuta's laughing face, and clumsily, awkwardly, put
both arms round her waist, his hands meeting behind her back. He
held her round the waist with both arms, while, putting her
hands up to her head, showing the dimples in her elbows, she set
her hair straight under the kerchief and said in a calm voice:
"You must be tactful, polite, charming, and you can only become
that under feminine influence. But what a wicked, angry face you
have! You must talk, laugh. . . . Yes, Volodya, don't be surly;
you are young and will have plenty of time for philosophising.
Come, let go of me; I am going. Let go."
Without effort she released her waist, and, humming something,
walked out of the arbour. Volodya was left alone. He smoothed
his hair, smiled, and walked three times to and fro across the
arbour, then he sat down on the bench and smiled again. He felt
insufferably ashamed, so much so that he wondered that human
shame could reach such a pitch of acuteness and intensity. Shame
made him smile, gesticulate, and whisper some disconnected
He was ashamed that he had been treated like a small boy,
ashamed of his shyness, and, most of all, that he had had the
audacity to put his arms round the waist of a respectable
married woman, though, as it seemed to him, he had neither
through age nor by external quality, nor by social position any
right to do so.
He jumped up, went out of the arbour, and, without looking
round, walked into the recesses of the garden furthest from the
"Ah! only to get away from here as soon as possible," he
thought, clutching his head. "My God! as soon as possible."
The train by which Volodya was to go back with his maman was at
eight-forty. There were three hours before the train started,
but he would with pleasure have gone to the station at once
without waiting for his maman.
At eight o'clock he went to the house. His whole figure was
expressive of determination: what would be, would be! He made up
his mind to go in boldly, to look them straight in the face, to
speak in a loud voice, regardless of everything.
He crossed the terrace, the big hall and the drawing-room, and
there stopped to take breath. He could hear them in the
dining-room, drinking tea. Madame Shumihin, maman, and Nyuta
were talking and laughing about something.
"I assure you!" said Nyuta. "I could not believe my eyes! When
he began declaring his passion and -- just imagine! -- put his
arms round my waist, I should not have recognised him. And you
know he has a way with him! When he told me he was in love with
me, there was something brutal in his face, like a Circassian."
"Really!" gasped maman, going off into a peal of laughter.
"Really! How he does remind me of his father!"
Volodya ran back and dashed out into the open air.
"How could they talk of it aloud!" he wondered in agony,
clasping his hands and looking up to the sky in horror. "They
talk aloud in cold blood . . . and maman laughed! . . . Maman!
My God, why didst Thou give me such a mother? Why?"
But he had to go to the house, come what might. He walked three
times up and down the avenue, grew a little calmer, and went
into the house.
"Why didn't you come in in time for tea?" Madame Shumihin asked
"I am sorry, it's . . . it's time for me to go," he muttered,
not raising his eyes. "Maman, it's eight o'clock!"
"You go alone, my dear," said his maman languidly. "I am staying
the night with Lili. Goodbye, my dear. . . . Let me make the
sign of the cross over you."
She made the sign of the cross over her son, and said in French,
turning to Nyuta:
"He's rather like Lermontov . . . isn't he?"
Saying good-bye after a fashion, without looking any one in the
face, Volodya went out of the dining-room. Ten minutes later he
was walking along the road to the station, and was glad of it.
Now he felt neither frightened nor ashamed; he breathed freely
About half a mile from the station, he sat down on a stone by
the side of the road, and gazed at the sun, which was half
hidden behind a barrow. There were lights already here and there
at the station, and one green light glimmered dimly, but the
train was not yet in sight. It was pleasant to Volodya to sit
still without moving, and to watch the evening coming little by
little. The darkness of the arbour, the footsteps, the smell of
the bath-house, the laughter, and the waist -- all these rose
with amazing vividness before his imagination, and all this was
no longer so terrible and important as before.
"It's of no consequence. . . . She did not pull her hand away,
and laughed when I held her by the waist," he thought. "So she
must have liked it. If she had disliked it she would have been
angry . . . ."
And now Volodya felt sorry that he had not had more boldness
there in the arbour. He felt sorry that he was so stupidly going
away, and he was by now persuaded that if the same thing
happened again he would be bolder and look at it more simply.
And it would not be difficult for the opportunity to occur
again. They used to stroll about for a long time after supper at
the Shumihins'. If Volodya went for a walk with Nyuta in the
dark garden, there would be an opportunity!
"I will go back," he thought, "and will go by the morning train
to-morrow. . . . I will say I have missed the train."
And he turned back. . . . Madame Shumihin, Maman, Nyuta, and one
of the nieces were sitting on the verandah, playing vint. When
Volodya told them the lie that he had missed the train, they
were uneasy that he might be late for the examination day, and
advised him to get up early. All the while they were playing he
sat on one side, greedily watching Nyuta and waiting. . . . He
already had a plan prepared in his mind: he would go up to Nyuta
in the dark, would take her by the hand, then would embrace her;
there would be no need to say anything, as both of them would
understand without words.
But after supper the ladies did not go for a walk in the garden,
but went on playing cards. They played till one o'clock at
night, and then broke up to go to bed.
"How stupid it all is!" Volodya thought with vexation as he got
into bed. "But never mind; I'll wait till to-morrow . . .
to-morrow in the arbour. It doesn't matter. . . ."
He did not attempt to go to sleep, but sat in bed, hugging his
knees and thinking. All thought of the examination was hateful
to him. He had already made up his mind that they would expel
him, and that there was nothing terrible about his being
expelled. On the contrary, it was a good thing -- a very good
thing, in fact. Next day he would be as free as a bird; he would
put on ordinary clothes instead of his school uniform, would
smoke openly, come out here, and make love to Nyuta when he
liked; and he would not be a schoolboy but "a young man." And as
for the rest of it, what is called a career, a future, that was
clear; Volodya would go into the army or the telegraph service,
or he would go into a chemist's shop and work his way up till he
was a dispenser. . . . There were lots of callings. An hour or
two passed, and he was still sitting and thinking. . . .
Towards three o'clock, when it was beginning to get light, the
door creaked cautiously and his maman came into the room.
"Aren't you asleep?" she asked, yawning. "Go to sleep; I have
only come in for a minute. . . . I am only fetching the drops. .
"Poor Lili has got spasms again. Go to sleep, my child, your
examination's to-morrow. . . ."
She took a bottle of something out of the cupboard, went to the
window, read the label, and went away.
"Marya Leontyevna, those are not the drops!" Volodya heard a
woman's voice, a minute later. "That's convallaria, and Lili
wants morphine. Is your son asleep? Ask him to look for it. . .
It was Nyuta's voice. Volodya turned cold. He hurriedly put on
his trousers, flung his coat over his shoulders, and went to the
"Do you understand? Morphine," Nyuta explained in a whisper.
"There must be a label in Latin. Wake Volodya; he will find it."
Maman opened the door and Volodya caught sight of Nyuta. She was
wearing the same loose wrapper in which she had gone to bathe.
Her hair hung loose and disordered on her shoulders, her face
looked sleepy and dark in the half-light. . . .
"Why, Volodya is not asleep," she said. "Volodya, look in the
cupboard for the morphine, there's a dear! What a nuisance Lili
is! She has always something the matter."
Maman muttered something, yawned, and went away.
"Look for it," said Nyuta. "Why are you standing still?"
Volodya went to the cupboard, knelt down, and began looking
through the bottles and boxes of medicine. His hands were
trembling, and he had a feeling in his chest and stomach as
though cold waves were running all over his inside. He felt
suffocated and giddy from the smell of ether, carbolic acid, and
various drugs, which he quite unnecessarily snatched up with his
trembling fingers and spilled in so doing.
"I believe maman has gone," he thought. "That's a good thing . .
. a good thing. . . ."
"Will you be quick?" said Nyuta, drawling.
"In a minute. . . . Here, I believe this is morphine," said
Volodya, reading on one of the labels the word "morph . . ."
"Here it is!"
Nyuta was standing in the doorway in such a way that one foot
was in his room and one was in the passage. She was tidying her
hair, which was difficult to put in order because it was so
thick and long, and looked absent-mindedly at Volodya. In her
loose wrap, with her sleepy face and her hair down, in the dim
light that came into the white sky not yet lit by the sun, she
seemed to Volodya captivating, magnificent. . . . Fascinated,
trembling all over, and remembering with relish how he had held
that exquisite body in his arms in the arbour, he handed her the
bottle and said:
"How wonderful you are!"
She came into the room.
"What?" she asked, smiling.
He was silent and looked at her, then, just as in the arbour, he
took her hand, and she looked at him with a smile and waited for
what would happen next.
"I love you," he whispered.
She left off smiling, thought a minute, and said:
"Wait a little; I think somebody is coming. Oh, these
schoolboys!" she said in an undertone, going to the door and
peeping out into the passage. "No, there is no one to be seen. .
She came back.
Then it seemed to Volodya that the room, Nyuta, the sunrise and
himself -- all melted together in one sensation of acute,
extraordinary, incredible bliss, for which one might give up
one's whole life and face eternal torments. . . . But half a
minute passed and all that vanished. Volodya saw only a fat,
plain face, distorted by an expression of repulsion, and he
himself suddenly felt a loathing for what had happened.
"I must go away, though," said Nyuta, looking at Volodya with
disgust. "What a wretched, ugly . . . fie, ugly duckling!"
How unseemly her long hair, her loose wrap, her steps, her voice
seemed to Volodya now! . . .
" 'Ugly duckling' . . ." he thought after she had gone away. "I
really am ugly . . . everything is ugly."
The sun was rising, the birds were singing loudly; he could hear
the gardener walking in the garden and the creaking of his
wheelbarrow . . . and soon afterwards he heard the lowing of the
cows and the sounds of the shepherd's pipe. The sunlight and the
sounds told him that somewhere in this world there is a pure,
refined, poetical life. But where was it? Volodya had never
heard a word of it from his maman or any of the people round
When the footman came to wake him for the morning train, he
pretended to be asleep. . . .
"Bother it! Damn it all!" he thought.
He got up between ten and eleven.
Combing his hair before the looking-glass, and looking at his
ugly face, pale from his sleepless night, he thought:
"It's perfectly true . . . an ugly duckling!"
When maman saw him and was horrified that he was not at his
examination, Volodya said:
"I overslept myself, maman. . . . But don't worry, I will get a
Madame Shumihin and Nyuta waked up at one o'clock. Volodya heard
Madame Shumihin open her window with a bang, heard Nyuta go off
into a peal of laughter in reply to her coarse voice. He saw the
door open and a string of nieces and other toadies (among the
latter was his maman) file into lunch, caught a glimpse of
Nyuta's freshly washed laughing face, and, beside her, the black
brows and beard of her husband the architect, who had just
Nyuta was wearing a Little Russian dress which did not suit her
at all, and made her look clumsy; the architect was making dull
and vulgar jokes. The rissoles served at lunch had too much
onion in them -- so it seemed to Volodya. It also seemed to him
that Nyuta laughed loudly on purpose, and kept glancing in his
direction to give him to understand that the memory of the night
did not trouble her in the least, and that she was not aware of
the presence at table of the "ugly duckling."
At four o'clock Volodya drove to the station with his maman.
Foul memories, the sleepless night, the prospect of expulsion
from school, the stings of conscience -- all roused in him now
an oppressive, gloomy anger. He looked at maman's sharp profile,
at her little nose, and at the raincoat which was a present from
Nyuta, and muttered:
"Why do you powder? It's not becoming at your age! You make
yourself up, don't pay your debts at cards, smoke other people's
tobacco. . . . It's hateful! I don't love you . . . I don't love
He was insulting her, and she moved her little eyes about in
alarm, flung up her hands, and whispered in horror:
"What are you saying, my dear! Good gracious! the coachman will
hear! Be quiet or the coachman will hear! He can overhear
"I don't love you . . . I don't love you!" he went on
breathlessly. "You've no soul and no morals. . . . Don't dare to
wear that raincoat! Do you hear? Or else I will tear it into
rags. . . ."
"Control yourself, my child," maman wept; "the coachman can
"And where is my father's fortune? Where is your money? You have
wasted it all. I am not ashamed of being poor, but I am ashamed
of having such a mother. . . . When my schoolfellows ask
questions about you, I always blush."
In the train they had to pass two stations before they reached
the town. Volodya spent all the time on the little platform
between two carriages and shivered all over. He did not want to
go into the compartment because there the mother he hated was
sitting. He hated himself, hated the ticket collectors, the
smoke from the engine, the cold to which he attributed his
shivering. And the heavier the weight on his heart, the more
strongly he felt that somewhere in the world, among some people,
there was a pure, honourable, warm, refined life, full of love,
affection, gaiety, and serenity. . . . He felt this and was so
intensely miserable that one of the passengers, after looking in
his face attentively, actually asked:
"You have the toothache, I suppose?"
In the town maman and Volodya lived with Marya Petrovna, a lady
of noble rank, who had a large flat and let rooms to boarders.
Maman had two rooms, one with windows and two pictures in gold
frames hanging on the walls, in which her bed stood and in which
she lived, and a little dark room opening out of it in which
Volodya lived. Here there was a sofa on which he slept, and,
except that sofa, there was no other furniture; the rest of the
room was entirely filled up with wicker baskets full of clothes,
cardboard hat-boxes, and all sorts of rubbish, which maman
preserved for some reason or other. Volodya prepared his lessons
either in his mother's room or in the "general room," as the
large room in which the boarders assembled at dinner-time and in
the evening was called.
On reaching home he lay down on his sofa and put the quilt over
him to stop his shivering. The cardboard hat-boxes, the wicker
baskets, and the other rubbish, reminded him that he had not a
room of his own, that he had no refuge in which he could get
away from his mother, from her visitors, and from the voices
that were floating up from the "general room." The satchel and
the books lying about in the corners reminded him of the
examination he had missed. . . . For some reason there came into
his mind, quite inappropriately, Mentone, where he had lived
with his father when he was seven years old; he thought of
Biarritz and two little English girls with whom he ran about on
the sand. . . . He tried to recall to his memory the colour of
the sky, the sea, the height of the waves, and his mood at the
time, but he could not succeed. The English girls flitted before
his imagination as though they were living; all the rest was a
medley of images that floated away in confusion. . . .
"No; it's cold here," thought Volodya. He got up, put on his
overcoat, and went into the "general room."
There they were drinking tea. There were three people at the
samovar: maman; an old lady with tortoiseshell pince-nez, who
gave music lessons; and Avgustin Mihalitch, an elderly and very
stout Frenchman, who was employed at a perfumery factory.
"I have had no dinner to-day," said maman. "I ought to send the
maid to buy some bread."
"Dunyasha!" shouted the Frenchman.
It appeared that the maid had been sent out somewhere by the
lady of the house.
"Oh, that's of no consequence," said the Frenchman, with a broad
smile. "I will go for some bread myself at once. Oh, it's
He laid his strong, pungent cigar in a conspicuous place, put on
his hat and went out. After he had gone away maman began telling
the music teacher how she had been staying at the Shumihins',
and how warmly they welcomed her.
"Lili Shumihin is a relation of mine, you know," she said. "Her
late husband, General Shumihin, was a cousin of my husband. And
she was a Baroness Kolb by birth. . . ."
"Maman, that's false!" said Volodya irritably. "Why tell lies?"
He knew perfectly well that what his mother said was true; in
what she was saying about General Shumihin and about Baroness
Kolb there was not a word of lying, but nevertheless he felt
that she was lying. There was a suggestion of falsehood in her
manner of speaking, in the expression of her face, in her eyes,
"You are lying," repeated Volodya; and he brought his fist down
on the table with such force that all the crockery shook and
maman's tea was spilt over. "Why do you talk about generals and
baronesses? It's all lies!"
The music teacher was disconcerted, and coughed into her
handkerchief, affecting to sneeze, and maman began to cry.
"Where can I go?" thought Volodya.
He had been in the street already; he was ashamed to go to his
schoolfellows. Again, quite incongruously, he remembered the two
little English girls. . . . He paced up and down the "general
room," and went into Avgustin Mihalitch's room. Here there was a
strong smell of ethereal oils and glycerine soap. On the table,
in the window, and even on the chairs, there were a number of
bottles, glasses, and wineglasses containing fluids of various
colours. Volodya took up from the table a newspaper, opened it
and read the title Figaro. . . There was a strong and pleasant
scent about the paper. Then he took a revolver from the table. .
"There, there! Don't take any notice of it." The music teacher
was comforting maman in the next room. "He is young! Young
people of his age never restrain themselves. One must resign
oneself to that."
"No, Yevgenya Andreyevna; he's too spoilt," said maman in a
singsong voice. "He has no one in authority over him, and I am
weak and can do nothing. Oh, I am unhappy!"
Volodya put the muzzle of the revolver to his mouth, felt
something like a trigger or spring, and pressed it with his
finger. . . . Then felt something else projecting, and once more
pressed it. Taking the muzzle out of his mouth, he wiped it with
the lapel of his coat, looked at the lock. He had never in his
life taken a weapon in his hand before. . . .
"I believe one ought to raise this . . ." he reflected. "Yes, it
Avgustin Mihalitch went into the "general room," and with a
laugh began telling them about something. Volodya put the muzzle
in his mouth again, pressed it with his teeth, and pressed
something with his fingers. There was a sound of a shot. . . .
Something hit Volodya in the back of his head with terrible
violence, and he fell on the table with his face downwards among
the bottles and glasses. Then he saw his father, as in Mentone,
in a top-hat with a wide black band on it, wearing mourning for
some lady, suddenly seize him by both hands, and they fell
headlong into a very deep, dark pit.
Then everything was blurred and vanished.
amour-propre: conceit, vanity
Circassian: native of the region of southwest Russia that was
ceded to Russia by the Ottoman Turks in 1829
said in French: French was the primary language of Russian
aristocrats; however, by Chekhov's time speaking French was
considered an affectation
Lermontov: Mikhail Y. Lermontov (1814-1841) poet and novelist
make love: in the 19th century this phrase meant declaring one's
chemist's shop: pharmacy
Little Russian: Ukrainian