A.P. Chekhov - From the Diary of a
I AM a serious person and my mind is of a philosophic bent. My
vocation is the study of finance. I am a student of financial
law and I have chosen as the subject of my dissertation -- the
Past and Future of the Dog Licence. I need hardly point out that
young ladies, songs, moonlight, and all that sort of silliness
are entirely out of my line.
Morning. Ten o'clock. My maman pours me out a cup of coffee. I
drink it and go out on the little balcony to set to work on my
dissertation. I take a clean sheet of paper, dip the pen into
the ink, and write out the title: "The Past and Future of the
After thinking a little I write: "Historical Survey. We may
deduce from some allusions in Herodotus and Xenophon that the
origin of the tax on dogs goes back to . . . ."
But at that point I hear footsteps that strike me as highly
suspicious. I look down from the balcony and see below a young
lady with a long face and a long waist. Her name, I believe, is
Nadenka or Varenka, it really does not matter which. She is
looking for something, pretends not to have noticed me, and is
humming to herself:
"Dost thou remember that song full of tenderness?"
I read through what I have written and want to continue, but the
young lady pretends to have just caught sight of me, and says in
a mournful voice:
"Good morning, Nikolay Andreitch. Only fancy what a misfortune I
have had! I went for a walk yesterday and lost the little ball
off my bracelet!"
I read through once more the opening of my dissertation, I trim
up the tail of the letter "g" and mean to go on, but the young
"Nikolay Andreitch," she says, "won't you see me home? The
Karelins have such a huge dog that I simply daren't pass it
There is no getting out of it. I lay down my pen and go down to
her. Nadenka (or Varenka) takes my arm and we set off in the
direction of her villa.
When the duty of walking arm-in-arm with a lady falls to my lot,
for some reason or other I always feel like a peg with a heavy
cloak hanging on it. Nadenka (or Varenka), between ourselves, of
an ardent temperament (her grandfather was an Armenian), has a
peculiar art of throwing her whole weight on one's arm and
clinging to one's side like a leech. And so we walk along.
As we pass the Karelins', I see a huge dog, who reminds me of
the dog licence. I think with despair of the work I have begun
"What are you sighing for?" asks Nadenka (or Varenka), and
heaves a sigh herself.
Here I must digress for a moment to explain that Nadenka or
Varenka (now I come to think of it, I believe I have heard her
called Mashenka) imagines, I can't guess why, that I am in love
with her, and therefore thinks it her duty as a humane person
always to look at me with compassion and to soothe my wound with
"Listen," said she, stopping. "I know why you are sighing. You
are in love, yes; but I beg you for the sake of our friendship
to believe that the girl you love has the deepest respect for
you. She cannot return your love; but is it her fault that her
heart has long been another's?"
Mashenka's nose begins to swell and turn red, her eyes fill with
tears: she evidently expects some answer from me, but,
fortunately, at this moment we arrive. Mashenka's mamma, a
good-natured woman but full of conventional ideas, is sitting on
the terrace: glancing at her daughter's agitated face, she looks
intently at me and sighs, as though saying to herself: "Ah,
these young people! they don't even know how to keep their
secrets to themselves!"
On the terrace with her are several young ladies of various
colours and a retired officer who is staying in the villa next
to ours. He was wounded during the last war in the left temple
and the right hip. This unfortunate man is, like myself,
proposing to devote the summer to literary work. He is writing
the "Memoirs of a Military Man." Like me, he begins his
honourable labours every morning, but before he has written more
than "I was born in . . ." some Varenka or Mashenka is sure to
appear under his balcony, and the wounded hero is borne off
All the party sitting on the terrace are engaged in preparing
some miserable fruit for jam. I make my bows and am about to
beat a retreat, but the young ladies of various colours seize my
hat with a squeal and insist on my staying. I sit down. They
give me a plate of fruit and a hairpin. I begin taking the seeds
The young ladies of various colours talk about men: they say
that So-and-So is nice-looking, that So-and-So is handsome but
not nice, that somebody else is nice but ugly, and that a fourth
would not have been bad-looking if his nose were not like a
thimble, and so on.
"And you, Monsieur Nicolas," says Varenka's mamma, turning to
me, "are not handsome, but you are attractive. . . . There is
something about your face. . . . In men, though, it's not beauty
but intelligence that matters," she adds, sighing.
The young ladies sigh, too, and drop their eyes . . . they agree
that the great thing in men is not beauty but intelligence. I
steal a glance sideways at a looking-glass to ascertain whether
I really am attractive. I see a shaggy head, a bushy beard,
moustaches, eyebrows, hair on my cheeks, hair up to my eyes, a
perfect thicket with a solid nose sticking up out of it like a
watch-tower. Attractive! h'm!
"But it's by the qualities of your soul, after all, that you
will make your way, Nicolas," sighs Nadenka's mamma, as though
affirming some secret and original idea of her own.
And Nadenka is sympathetically distressed on my account, but the
conviction that a man passionately in love with her is sitting
opposite is obviously a source of the greatest enjoyment to her.
When they have done with men, the young ladies begin talking
about love. After a long conversation about love, one of the
young ladies gets up and goes away. Those that remain begin to
pick her to pieces. Everyone agrees that she is stupid,
unbearable, ugly, and that one of her shoulder-blades sticks out
in a shocking way.
But at last, thank goodness! I see our maid. My maman has sent
her to call me in to dinner. Now I can make my escape from this
uncongenial company and go back to my work. I get up and make my
Varenka's maman, Varenka herself, and the variegated young
ladies surround me, and declare that I cannot possibly go,
because I promised yesterday to dine with them and go to the
woods to look for mushrooms. I bow and sit down again. My soul
is boiling with rage, and I feel that in another moment I may
not be able to answer for myself, that there may be an
explosion, but gentlemanly feeling and the fear of committing a
breach of good manners compels me to obey the ladies. And I obey
We sit down to dinner. The wounded officer, whose wound in the
temple has affected the muscles of the left cheek, eats as
though he had a bit in his mouth. I roll up little balls of
bread, think about the dog licence, and, knowing the
ungovernable violence of my temper, try to avoid speaking.
Nadenka looks at me sympathetically.
Soup, tongue and peas, roast fowl, and compte. I have no
appetite, but eat from politeness.
After dinner, while I am standing alone on the terrace, smoking,
Nadenka's mamma comes up to me, presses my hand, and says
"Don't despair, Nicolas! She has such a heart, . . . such a
heart! . . ."
We go towards the wood to gather mushrooms. Varenka hangs on my
arm and clings to my side. My sufferings are indescribable, but
I bear them in patience.
We enter the wood.
"Listen, Monsieur Nicolas," says Nadenka, sighing. "Why are you
so melancholy? And why are you so silent?"
Extraordinary girl she is, really! What can I talk to her about?
What have we in common?
"Oh, do say something!" she begs me.
I begin trying to think of something popular, something within
the range of her understanding. After a moment's thought I say:
"The cutting down of forests has been greatly detrimental to the
prosperity of Russia. . . ."
"Nicolas," sighs Nadenka, and her nose begins to turn red,
"Nicolas, I see you are trying to avoid being open with me. . .
. You seem to wish to punish me by your silence. Your feeling is
not returned, and you wish to suffer in silence, in solitude . .
. it is too awful, Nicolas!" she cries impulsively seizing my
hand, and I see her nose beginning to swell. "What would you say
if the girl you love were to offer you her eternal friendship?"
I mutter something incoherent, for I really can't think what to
say to her.
In the first place, I'm not in love with any girl at all; in the
second, what could I possibly want her eternal friendship for?
and, thirdly, I have a violent temper.
Mashenka (or Varenka) hides her face in her hands and murmurs,
as though to herself:
"He will not speak; . . . it is clear that he will have me make
the sacrifice! I cannot love him, if my heart is still another's
. . . but . . . I will think of it. . . . Very good, I will
think of it . . . I will prove the strength of my soul, and
perhaps, at the cost of my own happiness, I will save this man
from suffering!" . . .
I can make nothing out of all this. It seems some special sort
We go farther into the wood and begin picking mushrooms. We are
perfectly silent the whole time. Nadenka's face shows signs of
inward struggle. I hear the bark of dogs; it reminds me of my
dissertation, and I sigh heavily. Between the trees I catch
sight of the wounded officer limping painfully along. The poor
fellow's right leg is lame from his wound, and on his left arm
he has one of the variegated young ladies. His face expresses
resignation to destiny.
We go back to the house to drink tea, after which we play
croquet and listen to one of the variegated young ladies singing
a song: "No, no, thou lovest not, no, no." At the word "no" she
twists her mouth till it almost touches one ear.
"Charmant!" wail the other young ladies, "Charmant!"
The evening comes on. A detestable moon creeps up behind the
bushes. There is perfect stillness in the air, and an unpleasant
smell of freshly cut hay. I take up my hat and try to get away.
"I have something I must say to you!" Mashenka whispers to me
significantly, "don't go away!"
I have a foreboding of evil, but politeness obliges me to
remain. Mashenka takes my arm and leads me away to a garden
walk. By this time her whole figure expresses conflict. She is
pale and gasping for breath, and she seems absolutely set on
pulling my right arm out of the socket. What can be the matter
"Listen!" she mutters. "No, I cannot! No! . . ." She tries to
say something, but hesitates. Now I see from her face that she
has come to some decision. With gleaming eyes and swollen nose
she snatches my hand, and says hurriedly, "Nicolas, I am yours!
Love you I cannot, but I promise to be true to you!"
Then she squeezes herself to my breast, and at once springs
"Someone is coming," she whispers. "Farewell! . . . To-morrow at
eleven o'clock I will be in the arbour. . . . Farewell!"
And she vanishes. Completely at a loss for an explanation of her
conduct and suffering from a painful palpitation of the heart, I
make my way home. There the "Past and Future of the Dog Licence"
is awaiting me, but I am quite unable to work. I am furious. . .
. I may say, my anger is terrible. Damn it all! I allow no one
to treat me like a boy, I am a man of violent temper, and it is
not safe to trifle with me!
When the maid comes in to call me to supper, I shout to her: "Go
out of the room!" Such hastiness augurs nothing good.
Next morning. Typical holiday weather. Temperature below
freezing, a cutting wind, rain, mud, and a smell of naphthaline,
because my maman has taken all her wraps out of her trunks. A
devilish morning! It is the 7th of August, 1887, the date of the
solar eclipse. I may here remark that at the time of an eclipse
every one of us may, without special astronomical knowledge, be
of the greatest service. Thus, for example, anyone of us can (1)
take the measurement of the diameters of the sun and the moon;
(2) sketch the corona of the sun; (3) take the temperature; (4)
take observations of plants and animals during the eclipse; (5)
note down his own impressions, and so on.
It is a matter of such exceptional importance that I lay aside
the "Past and Future of the Dog Licence" and make up my mind to
observe the eclipse.
We all get up very early, and I divide the work as follows: I am
to measure the diameter of the sun and moon; the wounded officer
is to sketch the corona; and the other observations are
undertaken by Mashenka and the variegated young ladies.
We all meet together and wait.
"What is the cause of the eclipse?" asks Mashenka.
I reply: "A solar eclipse occurs when the moon, moving in the
plane of the ecliptic, crosses the line joining the centres of
the sun and the earth."
"And what does the ecliptic mean?"
I explain. Mashenka listens attentively.
"Can one see through the smoked glass the line joining the
centres of the sun and the earth?" she enquires.
I reply that this is only an imaginary line, drawn
"If it is only an imaginary line, how can the moon cross it?"
Varenka says, wondering.
I make no reply. I feel my spleen rising at this nave question.
"It's all nonsense," says Mashenka's maman. "Impossible to tell
what's going to happen. You've never been in the sky, so what
can you know of what is to happen with the sun and moon? It's
At that moment a black patch begins to move over the sun.
General confusion follows. The sheep and horses and cows run
bellowing about the fields with their tails in the air. The dogs
howl. The bugs, thinking night has come on, creep out of the
cracks in the walls and bite the people who are still in bed.
The deacon, who was engaged in bringing some cucumbers from the
market garden, jumped out of his cart and hid under the bridge;
while his horse walked off into somebody else's yard, where the
pigs ate up all the cucumbers. The excise officer, who had not
slept at home that night, but at a lady friend's, dashed out
with nothing on but his nightshirt, and running into the crowd
shouted frantically: "Save yourself, if you can!"
Numbers of the lady visitors, even young and pretty ones, run
out of their villas without even putting their slippers on.
Scenes occur which I hesitate to describe.
"Oh, how dreadful!" shriek the variegated young ladies. "It's
really too awful!"
"Mesdames, watch!" I cry. "Time is precious!"
And I hasten to measure the diameters. I remember the corona,
and look towards the wounded officer. He stands doing nothing.
"What's the matter?" I shout. "How about the corona?"
He shrugs his shoulders and looks helplessly towards his arms.
The poor fellow has variegated young ladies on both sides of
him, clinging to him in terror and preventing him from working.
I seize a pencil and note down the time to a second. That is of
great importance. I note down the geographical position of the
point of observation. That, too, is of importance. I am just
about to measure the diameter when Mashenka seizes my hand, and
"Do not forget to-day, eleven o'clock."
I withdraw my hand, feeling every second precious, try to
continue my observations, but Varenka clutches my arm and clings
to me. Pencil, pieces of glass, drawings -- all are scattered on
the grass. Hang it! It's high time the girl realized that I am a
man of violent temper, and when I am roused my fury knows no
bounds, I cannot answer for myself.
I try to continue, but the eclipse is over.
"Look at me!" she whispers tenderly.
Oh, that is the last straw! Trying a man's patience like that
can but have a fatal ending. I am not to blame if something
terrible happens. I allow no one to make a laughing stock of me,
and, God knows, when I am furious, I advise nobody to come near
me, damn it all! There's nothing I might not do! One of the
young ladies, probably noticing from my face what a rage I am
in, and anxious to propitiate me, says:
"I did exactly what you told me, Nikolay Andreitch; I watched
the animals. I saw the grey dog chasing the cat just before the
eclipse, and wagging his tail for a long while afterwards."
So nothing came of the eclipse after all.
I go home. Thanks to the rain, I work indoors instead of on the
balcony. The wounded officer has risked it, and has again got as
far as "I was born in . . ." when I see one of the variegated
young ladies pounce down on him and bear him off to her villa.
I cannot work, for I am still in a fury and suffering from
palpitation of the heart. I do not go to the arbour. It is
impolite not to, but, after all, I can't be expected to go in
At twelve o'clock I receive a letter from Mashenka, a letter
full of reproaches and entreaties to go to the arbour,
addressing me as "thou." At one o'clock I get a second letter,
and at two, a third. . . . I must go. . . . But before going I
must consider what I am to say to her. I will behave like a
To begin with, I will tell her that she is mistaken in supposing
that I am in love with her. That's a thing one does not say to a
lady as a rule, though. To tell a lady that one's not in love
with her, is almost as rude as to tell an author he can't write.
The best thing will be to explain my views of marriage.
I put on my winter overcoat, take an umbrella, and walk to the
Knowing the hastiness of my temper, I am afraid I may be led
into speaking too strongly; I will try to restrain myself.
I find Nadenka still waiting for me. She is pale and in tears.
On seeing me she utters a cry of joy, flings herself on my neck,
"At last! You are trying my patience. . . . Listen, I have not
slept all night. . . . I have been thinking and thinking. . . .
I believe that when I come to know you better I shall learn to
love you. . . ."
I sit down, and begin to unfold my views of marriage. To begin
with, to clear the ground of digressions and to be as brief as
possible, I open with a short historical survey. I speak of
marriage in ancient Egypt and India, then pass to more recent
times, a few ideas from Schopenhauer. Mashenka listens
attentively, but all of a sudden, through some strange
incoherence of ideas, thinks fit to interrupt me:
"Nicolas, kiss me!" she says.
I am embarrassed and don't know what to say to her. She repeats
her request. There seems no avoiding it. I get up and bend over
her long face, feeling as I do so just as I did in my childhood
when I was lifted up to kiss my grandmother in her coffin. Not
content with the kiss, Mashenka leaps up and impulsively
embraces me. At that instant, Mashenka's maman appears in the
doorway of the arbour. . . . She makes a face as though in
alarm, and saying "sh-sh" to someone with her, vanishes like
Mephistopheles through the trapdoor.
Confused and enraged, I return to our villa. At home I find
Varenka's maman embracing my maman with tears in her eyes. And
my maman weeps and says:
"I always hoped for it!"
And then, if you please, Nadenka's maman comes up to me,
embraces me, and says:
"May God bless you! . . . Mind you love her well. . . . Remember
the sacrifice she is making for your sake!"
And here I am at my wedding. At the moment I write these last
words, my best man is at my side, urging me to make haste. These
people have no idea of my character! I have a violent temper, I
cannot always answer for myself! Hang it all! God knows what
will come of it! To lead a violent, desperate man to the altar
is as unwise as to thrust one's hand into the cage of a
ferocious tiger. We shall see, we shall see!
* * * * *
And so, I am married. Everybody congratulates me and Varenka
keeps clinging to me and saying:
"Now you are mine, mine; do you understand that? Tell me that
you love me!" And her nose swells as she says it.
I learn from my best man that the wounded officer has very
cleverly escaped the snares of Hymen. He showed the variegated
young lady a medical certificate that owing to the wound in his
temple he was at times mentally deranged and incapable of
contracting a valid marriage. An inspiration! I might have got a
certificate too. An uncle of mine drank himself to death,
another uncle was extremely absent-minded (on one occasion he
put a lady's muff on his head in mistake for his hat), an aunt
of mine played a great deal on the piano, and used to put out
her tongue at gentlemen she did not like. And my ungovernable
temper is a very suspicious symptom.
But why do these great ideas always come too late? Why?
charmant: charming, delightful
naphthaline: a white solid with a strong smell, the main
ingredient in mothballs; in Chekhov's The Three Sisters,
Chebutykin reads in a newspaper, "For hair falling out. . . two
ounces of naphthaline in half a bottle of alcohol. . ., to be
dissolved and used daily. . ."
eclipse: on 7 August 1887 (19 August 1887 in the Gregorian
calendar) a total solar eclipse occured over parts of Russia,
addressing me as "thou": used the familiar form of "you" in
Russian that is used to address family members and children
Schopenhauer: German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1869)
coffin: kissing the dead in their coffin was a common Russian
trapdoor: at the end of the first part of Goethe's Faust
Hymen: Hymen (or Hymenaeus) was the Greek god of marriage