- The Teacher of Literature
THERE was the thud of horses' hoofs on the
wooden floor; they brought out of the stable the black horse,
Count Nulin; then the white, Giant; then his sister Maika. They
were all magnificent, expensive horses. Old Shelestov saddled
Giant and said, addressing his daughter Masha:
"Well, Marie Godefroi, come, get on! Hopla!"
Masha Shelestov was the youngest of the family; she was
eighteen, but her family could not get used to thinking that she
was not a little girl, and so they still called her Manya and
Manyusa; and after there had been a circus in the town which she
had eagerly visited, every one began to call her Marie Godefroi.
"Hop-la!" she cried, mounting Giant. Her sister Varya got on
Maika, Nikitin on Count Nulin, the officers on their horses, and
the long picturesque cavalcade, with the officers in white
tunics and the ladies in their riding habits, moved at a walking
pace out of the yard.
Nikitin noticed that when they were mounting the horses and
afterwards riding out into the street, Masha for some reason
paid attention to no one but himself. She looked anxiously at
him and at Count Nulin and said:
"You must hold him all the time on the curb, Sergey Vassilitch.
Don't let him shy. He's pretending."
And either because her Giant was very friendly with Count Nulin,
or perhaps by chance, she rode all the time beside Nikitin, as
she had done the day before, and the day before that. And he
looked at her graceful little figure sitting on the proud white
beast, at her delicate profile, at the chimney-pot hat, which
did not suit her at all and made her look older than her age --
looked at her with joy, with tenderness, with rapture; listened
to her, taking in little of what she said, and thought:
"I promise on my honour, I swear to God, I won't be afraid and
I'll speak to her today."
It was seven o'clock in the evening -- the time when the scent
of white acacia and lilac is so strong that the air and the very
trees seem heavy with the fragrance. The band was already
playing in the town gardens. The horses made a resounding thud
on the pavement, on all sides there were sounds of laughter,
talk, and the banging of gates. The soldiers they met saluted
the officers, the schoolboys bowed to Nikitin, and all the
people who were hurrying to the gardens to hear the band were
pleased at the sight of the party. And how warm it was! How
soft-looking were the clouds scattered carelessly about the sky,
how kindly and comforting the shadows of the poplars and the
acacias, which stretched across the street and reached as far as
the balconies and second stories of the houses on the other
They rode on out of the town and set off at a trot along the
highroad. Here there was no scent of lilac and acacia, no music
of the band, but there was the fragrance of the fields, there
was the green of young rye and wheat, the marmots were
squeaking, the rooks were cawing. Wherever one looked it was
green, with only here and there black patches of bare ground,
and far away to the left in the cemetery a white streak of
They passed the slaughter-houses, then the brewery, and overtook
a military band hastening to the suburban gardens.
"Polyansky has a very fine horse, I don't deny that," Masha said
to Nikitin, with a glance towards the officer who was riding
beside Varya. "But it has blemishes. That white patch on its
left leg ought not to be there, and, look, it tosses its head.
You can't train it not to now; it will toss its head till the
end of its days."
Masha was as passionate a lover of horses as her father. She
felt a pang when she saw other people with fine horses, and was
pleased when she saw defects in them. Nikitin knew nothing about
horses; it made absolutely no difference to him whether he held
his horse on the bridle or on the curb, whether he trotted or
galloped; he only felt that his position was strained and
unnatural, and that consequently the officers who knew how to
sit in their saddles must please Masha more than he could. And
he was jealous of the officers.
As they rode by the suburban gardens some one suggested their
going in and getting some seltzer-water. They went in. There
were no trees but oaks in the gardens; they had only just come
into leaf, so that through the young foliage the whole garden
could still be seen with its platform, little tables, and
swings, and the crows' nests were visible, looking like big
hats. The party dismounted near a table and asked for
seltzer-water. People they knew, walking about the garden, came
up to them. Among them the army doctor in high boots, and the
conductor of the band, waiting for the musicians. The doctor
must have taken Nikitin for a student, for he asked: "Have you
come for the summer holidays?"
"No, I am here permanently," answered Nikitin. "I am a teacher
at the school."
"You don't say so?" said the doctor, with surprise. "So young
and already a teacher?"
"Young, indeed! My goodness, I'm twenty-six!
"You have a beard and moustache, but yet one would never guess
you were more than twenty-two or twenty-three. How young-looking
"What a beast!" thought Nikitin. "He, too, takes me for a
He disliked it extremely when people referred to his youth,
especially in the presence of women or the schoolboys. Ever
since he had come to the town as a master in the school he had
detested his own youthful appearance. The schoolboys were not
afraid of him, old people called him "young man," ladies
preferred dancing with him to listening to his long arguments,
and he would have given a great deal to be ten years older.
From the garden they went on to the Shelestovs' farm. There they
stopped at the gate and asked the bailiff's wife, Praskovya, to
bring some new milk. Nobody drank the milk; they all looked at
one another, laughed, and galloped back. As they rode back the
band was playing in the suburban garden; the sun was setting
behind the cemetery, and half the sky was crimson from the
Masha again rode beside Nikitin. He wanted to tell her how
passionately he loved her, but he was afraid he would be
overheard by the officers and Varya, and he was silent. Masha
was silent, too, and he felt why she was silent and why she was
riding beside him, and was so happy that the earth, the sky, the
lights of the town, the black outline of the brewery -- all
blended for him into something very pleasant and comforting, and
it seemed to him as though Count Nulin were stepping on air and
would climb up into the crimson sky.
They arrived home. The samovar was already boiling on the table,
old Shelestov was sitting with his friends, officials in the
Circuit Court, and as usual he was criticizing something.
"It's loutishness!" he said. "Loutishness and nothing more.
Since Nikitin had been in love with Masha, everything at the
Shelestovs' pleased him: the house, the garden, and the evening
tea, and the wickerwork chairs, and the old nurse, and even the
word "loutishness," which the old man was fond of using. The
only thing he did not like was the number of cats and dogs and
the Egyptian pigeons, who moaned disconsolately in a big cage in
the verandah. There were so many house-dogs and yard-dogs that
he had only learnt to recognize two of them in the course of his
acquaintance with the Shelestovs: Mushka and Som. Mushka was a
little mangy dog with a shaggy face, spiteful and spoiled. She
hated Nikitin: when she saw him she put her head on one side,
showed her teeth, and began: "Rrr . . . nga-nga-nga . . . rrr .
. . !" Then she would get under his chair, and when he would try
to drive her away she would go off into piercing yaps, and the
family would say: "Don't be frightened. She doesn't bite. She is
a good dog."
Som was a tall black dog with long legs and a tail as hard as a
stick. At dinner and tea he usually moved about under the table,
and thumped on people's boots and on the legs of the table with
his tail. He was a good-natured, stupid dog, but Nikitin could
not endure him because he had the habit of putting his head on
people's knees at dinner and messing their trousers with saliva.
Nikitin had more than once tried to hit him on his head with a
knife-handle, to flip him on the nose, had abused him, had
complained of him, but nothing saved his trousers.
After their ride the tea, jam, rusks, and butter seemed very
nice. They all drank their first glass in silence and with great
relish; over the second they began an argument. It was always
Varya who started the arguments at tea; she was good-looking,
handsomer than Masha, and was considered the cleverest and most
cultured person in the house, and she behaved with dignity and
severity, as an eldest daughter should who has taken the place
of her dead mother in the house. As the mistress of the house,
she felt herself entitled to wear a dressing-gown in the
presence of her guests, and to call the officers by their
surnames; she looked on Masha as a little girl, and talked to
her as though she were a schoolmistress. She used to speak of
herself as an old maid -- so she was certain she would marry.
Every conversation, even about the weather, she invariably
turned into an argument. She had a passion for catching at
words, pouncing on contradictions, quibbling over phrases. You
would begin talking to her, and she would stare at you and
suddenly interrupt: "Excuse me, excuse me, Petrov, the other day
you said the very opposite!"
Or she would smile ironically and say: "I notice, though, you
begin to advocate the principles of the secret police. I
If you jested or made a pun, you would hear her voice at once:
"That's stale," "That's pointless." If an officer ventured on a
joke, she would make a contemptuous grimace and say, "An army
And she rolled the r so impressively that Mushka invariably
answered from under a chair, "Rrr . . . nga-nga-nga . . . !"
On this occasion at tea the argument began with Nikitin's
mentioning the school examinations.
"Excuse me, Sergey Vassilitch," Varya interrupted him. "You say
it's difficult for the boys. And whose fault is that, let me ask
you? For instance, you set the boys in the eighth class an essay
on 'Pushkin as a Psychologist.' To begin with, you shouldn't set
such a difficult subject; and, secondly, Pushkin was not a
psychologist. Shtchedrin now, or Dostoevsky let us say, is a
different matter, but Pushkin is a great poet and nothing more."
"Shtchedrin is one thing, and Pushkin is another," Nikitin
"I know you don't think much of Shtchedrin at the high school,
but that's not the point. Tell me, in what sense is Pushkin a
"Why, do you mean to say he was not a psychologist? If you like,
I'll give you examples."
And Nikitin recited several passages from "Onyegin" and then
from "Boris Godunov."
"I see no psychology in that." Varya sighed. "The psychologist
is the man who describes the recesses of the human soul, and
that's fine poetry and nothing more."
"I know the sort of psychology you want," said Nikitin,
offended. "You want some one to saw my finger with a blunt saw
while I howl at the top of my voice -- that's what you mean by
"That's poor! But still you haven't shown me in what sense
Pushkin is a psychologist?"
When Nikitin had to argue against anything that seemed to him
narrow, conventional, or something of that kind, he usually
leaped up from his seat, clutched at his head with both hands,
and began with a moan, running from one end of the room to
another. And it was the same now: he jumped up, clutched his
head in his hands, and with a moan walked round the table, then
he sat down a little way off.
The officers took his part. Captain Polyansky began assuring
Varya that Pushkin really was a psychologist, and to prove it
quoted two lines from Lermontov; Lieutenant Gernet said that if
Pushkin had not been a psychologist they would not have erected
a monument to him in Moscow.
"That's loutishness!" was heard from the other end of the table.
"I said as much to the governor: 'It's loutishness, your
Excellency,' I said."
"I won't argue any more," cried Nikitin. "It's unending. . . .
Enough! Ach, get away, you nasty dog!" he cried to Som, who laid
his head and paw on his knee.
"Rrr . . . nga-nga-nga!" came from under the table.
"Admit that you are wrong!" cried Varya. "Own up!"
But some young ladies came in, and the argument dropped of
itself. They all went into the drawing-room. Varya sat down at
the piano and began playing dances. They danced first a waltz,
then a polka, then a quadrille with a grand chain which Captain
Polyansky led through all the rooms, then a waltz again.
During the dancing the old men sat in the drawing-room, smoking
and looking at the young people. Among them was Shebaldin, the
director of the municipal bank, who was famed for his love of
literature and dramatic art. He had founded the local Musical
and Dramatic Society, and took part in the performances himself,
confining himself, for some reason, to playing comic footmen or
to reading in a sing-song voice "The Woman who was a Sinner."
His nickname in the town was "the Mummy," as he was tall, very
lean and scraggy, and always had a solemn air and a fixed,
lustreless eye. He was so devoted to the dramatic art that he
even shaved his moustache and beard, and this made him still
more like a mummy.
After the grand chain, he shuffled up to Nikitin sideways,
coughed, and said:
"I had the pleasure of being present during the argument at tea.
I fully share your opinion. We are of one mind, and it would be
a great pleasure to me to talk to you. Have you read Lessing on
the dramatic art of Hamburg?"
"No, I haven't."
Shebaldin was horrified, and waved his hands as though he had
burnt his fingers, and saying nothing more, staggered back from
Nikitin. Shebaldin's appearance, his question, and his surprise,
struck Nikitin as funny, but he thought none the less:
"It really is awkward. I am a teacher of literature, and to this
day I've not read Lessing. I must read him."
Before supper the whole company, old and young, sat down to play
"fate." They took two packs of cards: one pack was dealt round
to the company, the other was laid on the table face downwards.
"The one who has this card in his hand," old Shelestov began
solemnly, lifting the top card of the second pack, "is fated to
go into the nursery and kiss nurse."
The pleasure of kissing the nurse fell to the lot of Shebaldin.
They all crowded round him, took him to the nursery, and
laughing and clapping their hands, made him kiss the nurse.
There was a great uproar and shouting.
"Not so ardently!" cried Shelestov with tears of laughter. "Not
It was Nikitin's "fate" to hear the confessions of all. He sat
on a chair in the middle of the drawing-room. A shawl was
brought and put over his head. The first who came to confess to
him was Varya.
"I know your sins," Nikitin began, looking in the darkness at
her stern profile. "Tell me, madam, how do you explain your
walking with Polyansky every day? Oh, it's not for nothing she
walks with an hussar!"
"That's poor," said Varya, and walked away.
Then under the shawl he saw the shine of big motionless eyes,
caught the lines of a dear profile in the dark, together with a
familiar, precious fragrance which reminded Nikitin of Masha's
"Marie Godefroi," he said, and did not know his own voice, it
was so soft and tender, "what are your sins?"
Masha screwed up her eyes and put out the tip of her tongue at
him, then she laughed and went away. And a minute later she was
standing in the middle of the room, clapping her hands and
"Supper, supper, supper!"
And they all streamed into the dining-room. At supper Varya had
another argument, and this time with her father. Polyansky ate
stolidly, drank red wine, and described to Nikitin how once in a
winter campaign he had stood all night up to his knees in a bog;
the enemy was so near that they were not allowed to speak or
smoke, the night was cold and dark, a piercing wind was blowing.
Nikitin listened and stole side-glances at Masha. She was gazing
at him immovably, without blinking, as though she was pondering
something or was lost in a reverie. . . . It was pleasure and
agony to him both at once.
"Why does she look at me like that?" was the question that
fretted him. "It's awkward. People may notice it. Oh, how young,
how nave she is!"
The party broke up at midnight. When Nikitin went out at the
gate, a window opened on the first-floor, and Masha showed
herself at it.
"Sergey Vassilitch!" she called.
"What is it?"
"I tell you what . . ." said Masha, evidently thinking of
something to say. "I tell you what. . . Polyansky said he would
come in a day or two with his camera and take us all. We must
Masha vanished, the window was slammed, and some one immediately
began playing the piano in the house.
"Well, it is a house!" thought Nikitin while he crossed the
street. "A house in which there is no moaning except from
Egyptian pigeons, and they only do it because they have no other
means of expressing their joy!"
But the Shelestovs were not the only festive household. Nikitin
had not gone two hundred paces before he heard the strains of a
piano from another house. A little further he met a peasant
playing the balalaika at the gate. In the gardens the band
struck up a potpourri of Russian songs.
Nikitin lived nearly half a mile from the Shelestoys' in a flat
of eight rooms at the rent of three hundred roubles a year,
which he shared with his colleague Ippolit Ippolititch, a
teacher of geography and history. When Nikitin went in this
Ippolit Ippolititch, a snub-nosed, middle-aged man with a
reddish beard, with a coarse, good-natured, unintellectual face
like a workman's, was sitting at the table correcting his
pupils' maps. He considered that the most important and
necessary part of the study of geography was the drawing of
maps, and of the study of history the learning of dates: he
would sit for nights together correcting in blue pencil the maps
drawn by the boys and girls he taught, or making chronological
"What a lovely day it has been!" said Nikitin, going in to him.
"I wonder at you -- how can you sit indoors?"
Ippolit Ippolititch was not a talkative person; he either
remained silent or talked of things which everybody knew
already. Now what he answered was:
"Yes, very fine weather. It's May now; we soon shall have real
summer. And summer's a very different thing from winter. In the
winter you have to heat the stoves, but in summer you can keep
warm without. In summer you have your window open at night and
still are warm, and in winter you are cold even with the double
Nikitin had not sat at the table for more than one minute before
he was bored.
"Good-night!" he said, getting up and yawning. "I wanted to tell
you something romantic concerning myself, but you are --
geography! If one talks to you of love, you will ask one at
once, 'What was the date of the Battle of Kalka?' Confound you,
with your battles and your capes in Siberia!"
"What are you cross about?"
"Why, it is vexatious!"
And vexed that he had not spoken to Masha, and that he had no
one to talk to of his love, he went to his study and lay down
upon the sofa. It was dark and still in the study. Lying gazing
into the darkness, Nikitin for some reason began thinking how in
two or three years he would go to Petersburg, how Masha would
see him off at the station and would cry; in Petersburg he would
get a long letter from her in which she would entreat him to
come home as quickly as possible. And he would write to her. . .
. He would begin his letter like that: "My dear little rat!"
"Yes, my dear little rat!" he said, and he laughed.
He was lying in an uncomfortable position. He put his arms under
his head and put his left leg over the back of the sofa. He felt
more comfortable. Meanwhile a pale light was more and more
perceptible at the windows, sleepy cocks crowed in the yard.
Nikitin went on thinking how he would come back from Petersburg,
how Masha would meet him at the station, and with a shriek of
delight would fling herself on his neck; or, better still, he
would cheat her and come home by stealth late at night: the cook
would open the door, then he would go on tiptoe to the bedroom,
undress noiselessly, and jump into bed! And she would wake up
and be overjoyed.
It was beginning to get quite light. By now there were no
windows, no study. On the steps of the brewery by which they had
ridden that day Masha was sitting, saying something. Then she
took Nikitin by the arm and went with him to the suburban
garden. There he saw the oaks and, the crows' nests like hats.
One of the nests rocked; out of it peeped Shebaldin, shouting
loudly: "You have not read Lessing!"
Nikitin shuddered all over and opened his eyes. Ippolit
Ippolititch was standing before the sofa, and throwing back his
head, was putting on his cravat.
"Get up; it's time for school," he said. "You shouldn't sleep in
your clothes; it spoils your clothes. You should sleep in your
And as usual he began slowly and emphatically saying what
Nikitin's first lesson was on Russian language in the second
class. When at nine o'clock punctually he went into the
classroom, he saw written on the blackboard two large letters --
M. S. That, no doubt, meant Masha Shelestov.
"They've scented it out already, the rascals . . ." thought
Nikitin. "How is it they know everything?"
The second lesson was in the fifth class. And there two letters,
M. S., were written on the blackboard; and when he went out of
the classroom at the end of the lesson, he heard the shout
behind him as though from a theatre gallery:
"Hurrah for Masha Shelestov!"
His head was heavy from sleeping in his clothes, his limbs were
weighted down with inertia. The boys, who were expecting every
day to break up before the examinations, did nothing, were
restless, and so bored that they got into mischief. Nikitin,
too, was restless, did not notice their pranks, and was
continually going to the window. He could see the street
brilliantly lighted up with the sun; above the houses the blue
limpid sky, the birds, and far, far away, beyond the gardens and
the houses, vast indefinite distance, the forests in the blue
haze, the smoke from a passing train. . . .
Here two officers in white tunics, playing with their whips,
passed in the street in the shade of the acacias. Here a lot of
Jews, with grey beards, and caps on, drove past in a waggonette.
. . . The governess walked by with the director's granddaughter.
Som ran by in the company of two other dogs. . . . And then
Varya, wearing a simple grey dress and red stockings, carrying
the "Vyestnik Evropi" in her hand, passed by. She must have been
to the town library. . . .
And it would be a long time before lessons were over at three
o'clock! And after school he could not go home nor to the
Shelestovs', but must go to give a lesson at Wolf's. This Wolf,
a wealthy Jew who had turned Lutheran, did not send his children
to the high school, but had them taught at home by the
high-school masters, and paid five roubles a lesson.
He was bored, bored, bored.
At three o'clock he went to Wolf's and spent there, as it seemed
to him, an eternity. He left there at five o'clock, and before
seven he had to be at the high school again to a meeting of the
masters -- to draw up the plan for the viva voce examination of
the fourth and sixth classes.
When late in the evening he left the high school and went to the
Shelestovs', his heart was beating and his face was flushed. A
month before, even a week before, he had, every time that he
made up his mind to speak to her, prepared a whole speech, with
an introduction and a conclusion. Now he had not one word ready;
everything was in a muddle in his head, and all he knew was that
today he would certainly declare himself, and that it was
utterly impossible to wait any longer.
"I will ask her to come to the garden," he thought; "we'll walk
about a little and I'll speak."
There was not a soul in the hall; he went into the dining-room
and then into the drawing-room. . . . There was no one there
either. He could hear Varya arguing with some one upstairs and
the clink of the dressmaker's scissors in the nursery.
There was a little room in the house which had three names: the
little room, the passage room, and the dark room. There was a
big cupboard in it where they kept medicines, gunpowder, and
their hunting gear. Leading from this room to the first floor
was a narrow wooden staircase where cats were always asleep.
There were two doors in it -- one leading to the nursery, one to
the drawing-room. When Nikitin went into this room to go
upstairs, the door from the nursery opened and shut with such a
bang that it made the stairs and the cupboard tremble; Masha, in
a dark dress, ran in with a piece of blue material in her hand,
and, not noticing Nikitin, darted towards the stairs.
"Stay . . ." said Nikitin, stopping her. "Good-evening,
Godefroi. . . . Allow me. . . ."
He gasped, he did not know what to say; with one hand he held
her hand and with the other the blue material. And she was half
frightened, half surprised, and looked at him with big eyes.
"Allow me . . ." Nikitin went on, afraid she would go away.
"There's something I must say to you. . . . Only . . . it's
inconvenient here. I cannot, I am incapable. . . . Understand,
Godefroi, I can't -- that's all . . . ."
The blue material slipped on to the floor, and Nikitin took
Masha by the other hand. She turned pale, moved her lips, then
stepped back from Nikitin and found herself in the corner
between the wall and the cupboard.
"On my honour, I assure you . . ." he said softly. "Masha, on my
honour. . . ."
She threw back her head and he kissed her lips, and that the
kiss might last longer he put his fingers to her cheeks; and it
somehow happened that he found himself in the corner between the
cupboard and the wall, and she put her arms round his neck and
pressed her head against his chin.
Then they both ran into the garden. The Shelestoys had a garden
of nine acres. There were about twenty old maples and lime-trees
in it; there was one fir-tree, and all the rest were
fruit-trees: cherries, apples, pears, horse-chestnuts, silvery
olive-trees. . . . There were heaps of flowers, too.
Nikitin and Masha ran along the avenues in silence, laughed,
asked each other from time to time disconnected questions which
they did not answer. A crescent moon was shining over the
garden, and drowsy tulips and irises were stretching up from the
dark grass in its faint light, as though entreating for words of
love for them, too.
When Nikitin and Masha went back to the house, the officers and
the young ladies were already assembled and dancing the mazurka.
Again Polyansky led the grand chain through all the rooms, again
after dancing they played "fate." Before supper, when the
visitors had gone into the dining-room, Masha, left alone with
Nikitin, pressed close to him and said:
"You must speak to papa and Varya yourself; I am ashamed."
After supper he talked to the old father. After listening to
him, Shelestov thought a little and said:
"I am very grateful for the honour you do me and my daughter,
but let me speak to you as a friend. I will speak to you, not as
a father, but as one gentleman to another. Tell me, why do you
want to be married so young? Only peasants are married so young,
and that, of course, is loutishness. But why should you? Where's
the satisfaction of putting on the fetters at your age?"
"I am not young!" said Nikitin, offended. "I am in my
"Papa, the farrier has come!" cried Varya from the other room.
And the conversation broke off. Varya, Masha, and Polyansky saw
Nikitin home. When they reached his gate, Varya said:
"Why is it your mysterious Metropolit Metropolititch never shows
himself anywhere? He might come and see us."
The mysterious Ippolit Ippolititch was sitting on his bed,
taking off his trousers, when Nikitin went in to him.
"Don't go to bed, my dear fellow," said Nikitin breathlessly.
"Stop a minute; don't go to bed!"
Ippolit Ippolititch put on his trousers hurriedly and asked in a
"What is it?"
"I am going to be married."
Nikitin sat down beside his companion, and looking at him
wonderingly, as though surprised at himself, said:
"Only fancy, I am going to be married! To Masha Shelestov! I
made an offer today."
"Well? She seems a good sort of girl. Only she is very young."
"Yes, she is young," sighed Nikitin, and shrugged his shoulders
with a careworn air. "Very, very young!"
"She was my pupil at the high school. I know her. She wasn't bad
at geography, but she was no good at history. And she was
inattentive in class, too."
Nikitin for some reason felt suddenly sorry for his companion,
and longed to say something kind and comforting to him.
"My dear fellow, why don't you get married?" he asked. "Why
don't you marry Varya, for instance? She is a splendid,
first-rate girl! It's true she is very fond of arguing, but a
heart . . . what a heart! She was just asking about you. Marry
her, my dear boy! Eh?"
He knew perfectly well that Varya would not marry this dull,
snub-nosed man, but still persuaded him to marry her -- why?
"Marriage is a serious step," said Ippolit Ippolititch after a
moment's thought. "One has to look at it all round and weigh
things thoroughly; it's not to be done rashly. Prudence is
always a good thing, and especially in marriage, when a man,
ceasing to be a bachelor, begins a new life."
And he talked of what every one has known for ages. Nikitin did
not stay to listen, said goodnight, and went to his own room. He
undressed quickly and quickly got into bed, in order to be able
to think the sooner of his happiness, of Masha, of the future;
he smiled, then suddenly recalled that he had not read Lessing.
"I must read him," he thought. "Though, after all, why should I?
And exhausted by his happiness, he fell asleep at once and went
on smiling till the morning.
He dreamed of the thud of horses' hoofs on a wooden floor; he
dreamed of the black horse Count Nulin, then of the white Giant
and its sister Maika, being led out of the stable.
"It was very crowded and noisy in the church, and once some one
cried out, and the head priest, who was marrying Masha and me,
looked through his spectacles at the crowd, and said severely:
'Don't move about the church, and don't make a noise, but stand
quietly and pray. You should have the fear of God in your
"My best men were two of my colleagues, and Masha's best men
were Captain Polyansky and Lieutenant Gernet. The bishop's choir
sang superbly. The sputtering of the candles, the brilliant
light, the gorgeous dresses, the officers, the numbers of gay,
happy faces, and a special ethereal look in Masha, everything
together -- the surroundings and the words of the wedding
prayers -- moved me to tears and filled me with triumph. I
thought how my life had blossomed, how poetically it was shaping
itself! Two years ago I was still a student, I was living in
cheap furnished rooms, without money, without relations, and, as
I fancied then, with nothing to look forward to. Now I am a
teacher in the high school in one of the best provincial towns,
with a secure income, loved, spoiled. It is for my sake, I
thought, this crowd is collected, for my sake three candelabra
have been lighted, the deacon is booming, the choir is doing its
best; and it's for my sake that this young creature, whom I soon
shall call my wife, is so young, so elegant, and so joyful. I
recalled our first meetings, our rides into the country, my
declaration of love and the weather, which, as though expressly,
was so exquisitely fine all the summer; and the happiness which
at one time in my old rooms seemed to me possible only in novels
and stories, I was now experiencing in reality -- I was now, as
it were, holding it in my hands.
"After the ceremony they all crowded in disorder round Masha and
me, expressed their genuine pleasure, congratulated us and
wished us joy. The brigadier-general, an old man of seventy,
confined himself to congratulating Masha, and said to her in a
squeaky, aged voice, so loud that it could be heard all over the
" 'I hope that even after you are married you may remain the
rose you are now, my dear.'
"The officers, the director, and all the teachers smiled from
politeness, and I was conscious of an agreeable artificial smile
on my face, too. Dear Ippolit Ippolititch, the teacher of
history and geography, who always says what every one has heard
before, pressed my hand warmly and said with feeling:
" 'Hitherto you have been unmarried and have lived alone, and
now you are married and no longer single.'
"From the church we went to a two-storied house which I am
receiving as part of the dowry. Besides that house Masha is
bringing me twenty thousand roubles, as well as a piece of waste
land with a shanty on it, where I am told there are numbers of
hens and ducks which are not looked after and are turning wild.
When I got home from the church, I stretched myself at full
length on the low sofa in my new study and began to smoke; I
felt snug, cosy, and comfortable, as I never had in my life
before. And meanwhile the wedding party were shouting 'Hurrah!'
while a wretched band in the hall played flourishes and all
sorts of trash. Varya, Masha's sister, ran into the study with a
wineglass in her hand, and with a queer, strained expression, as
though her mouth were full of water; apparently she had meant to
go on further, but she suddenly burst out laughing and sobbing,
and the wineglass crashed on the floor. We took her by the arms
and led her away.
" 'Nobody can understand!' she muttered afterwards, lying on the
old nurse's bed in a back room. 'Nobody, nobody! My God, nobody
"But every one understood very well that she was four years
older than her sister Masha, and still unmarried, and that she
was crying, not from envy, but from the melancholy consciousness
that her time was passing, and perhaps had passed. When they
danced the quadrille, she was back in the drawing-room with a
tear-stained and heavily powdered face, and I saw Captain
Polyansky holding a plate of ice before her while she ate it
with a spoon.
"It is past five o'clock in the morning. I took up my diary to
describe my complete and perfect happiness, and thought I would
write a good six pages, and read it tomorrow to Masha; but,
strange to say, everything is muddled in my head and as misty as
a dream, and I can remember vividly nothing but that episode
with Varya, and I want to write, 'Poor Varya!' I could go on
sitting here and writing 'Poor Varya!' By the way, the trees
have begun rustling; it will rain. The crows are cawing, and my
Masha, who has just gone to sleep, has for some reason a
For a long while afterwards Nikitin did not write his diary. At
the beginning of August he had the school examinations, and
after the fifteenth the classes began. As a rule he set off for
school before nine in the morning, and before ten o'clock he was
looking at his watch and pining for his Masha and his new house.
In the lower forms he would set some boy to dictate, and while
the boys were writing, would sit in the window with his eyes
shut, dreaming; whether he dreamed of the future or recalled the
past, everything seemed to him equally delightful, like a fairy
tale. In the senior classes they were reading aloud Gogol or
Pushkin's prose works, and that made him sleepy; people, trees,
fields, horses, rose before his imagination, and he would say
with a sigh, as though fascinated by the author:
At the midday recess Masha used to send him lunch in a
snow-white napkin, and he would eat it slowly, with pauses, to
prolong the enjoyment of it; and Ippolit Ippolititch, whose
lunch as a rule consisted of nothing but bread, looked at him
with respect and envy, and gave expression to some familiar
fact, such as:
"Men cannot live without food."
After school Nikitin went straight to give his private lessons,
and when at last by six o'clock he got home, he felt excited and
anxious, as though he had been away for a year. He would run
upstairs breathless, find Masha, throw his arms round her, and
kiss her and swear that he loved her, that he could not live
without her, declare that he had missed her fearfully, and ask
her in trepidation how she was and why she looked so depressed.
Then they would dine together. After dinner he would lie on the
sofa in his study and smoke, while she sat beside him and talked
in a low voice.
His happiest days now were Sundays and holidays, when he was at
home from morning till evening. On those days he took part in
the nave but extraordinarily pleasant life which reminded him
of a pastoral idyl. He was never weary of watching how his
sensible and practical Masha was arranging her nest, and anxious
to show that he was of some use in the house, he would do
something useless -- for instance, bring the chaise out of the
stable and look at it from every side. Masha had installed a
regular dairy with three cows, and in her cellar she had many
jugs of milk and pots of sour cream, and she kept it all for
butter. Sometimes, by way of a joke, Nikitin would ask her for a
glass of milk, and she would be quite upset because it was
against her rules; but he would laugh and throw his arms round
"There, there; I was joking, my darling! I was joking!"
Or he would laugh at her strictness when, finding in the
cupboard some stale bit of cheese or sausage as hard as a stone,
she would say seriously:
"They will eat that in the kitchen."
He would observe that such a scrap was only fit for a mousetrap,
and she would reply warmly that men knew nothing about
housekeeping, and that it was just the same to the servants if
you were to send down a hundredweight of savouries to the
kitchen. He would agree, and embrace her enthusiastically.
Everything that was just in what she said seemed to him
extraordinary and amazing; and what did not fit in with his
convictions seemed to him nave and touching.
Sometimes he was in a philosophical mood, and he would begin to
discuss some abstract subject while she listened and looked at
his face with curiosity.
"I am immensely happy with you, my joy," he used to say, playing
with her fingers or plaiting and unplaiting her hair. "But I
don't look upon this happiness of mine as something that has
come to me by chance, as though it had dropped from heaven. This
happiness is a perfectly natural, consistent, logical
consequence. I believe that man is the creator of his own
happiness, and now I am enjoying just what I have myself
created. Yes, I speak without false modesty: I have created this
happiness myself and I have a right to it. You know my past. My
unhappy childhood, without father or mother; my depressing
youth, poverty -- all this was a struggle, all this was the path
by which I made my way to happiness. . . ."
In October the school sustained a heavy loss: Ippolit
Ippolititch was taken ill with erysipelas on the head and died.
For two days before his death he was unconscious and delirious,
but even in his delirium he said nothing that was not perfectly
well known to every one.
"The Volga flows into the Caspian Sea. . . . Horses eat oats and
hay. . . ."
There were no lessons at the high school on the day of his
funeral. His colleagues and pupils were the coffin-bearers, and
the school choir sang all the way to the grave the anthem "Holy
God." Three priests, two deacons, all his pupils and the staff
of the boys' high school, and the bishop's choir in their best
kaftans, took part in the procession. And passers-by who met the
solemn procession, crossed themselves and said:
"God grant us all such a death."
Returning home from the cemetery much moved, Nikitin got out his
diary from the table and wrote:
"We have just consigned to the tomb Ippolit Ippolititch
Ryzhitsky. Peace to your ashes, modest worker! Masha, Varya, and
all the women at the funeral, wept from genuine feeling, perhaps
because they knew this uninteresting, humble man had never been
loved by a woman. I wanted to say a warm word at my colleague's
grave, but I was warned that this might displease the director,
as he did not like our poor friend. I believe that this is the
first day since my marriage that my heart has been heavy."
There was no other event of note in the scholastic year.
The winter was mild, with wet snow and no frost; on Epiphany
Eve, for instance, the wind howled all night as though it were
autumn, and water trickled off the roofs; and in the morning, at
the ceremony of the blessing of the water, the police allowed no
one to go on the river, because they said the ice was swelling
up and looked dark. But in spite of bad weather Nikitin's life
was as happy as in summer. And, indeed, he acquired another
source of pleasure; he learned to play vint. Only one thing
troubled him, moved him to anger, and seemed to prevent him from
being perfectly happy: the cats and dogs which formed part of
his wife's dowry. The rooms, especially in the morning, always
smelt like a menagerie, and nothing could destroy the odour; the
cats frequently fought with the dogs. The spiteful beast Mushka
was fed a dozen times a day; she still refused to recognize
Nikitin and growled at him: "Rrr . . . nga-nga-nga!"
One night in Lent he was returning home from the club where he
had been playing cards. It was dark, raining, and muddy. Nikitin
had an unpleasant feeling at the bottom of his heart and could
not account for it. He did not know whether it was because he
had lost twelve roubles at cards, or whether because one of the
players, when they were settling up, had said that of course
Nikitin had pots of money, with obvious reference to his wife's
portion. He did not regret the twelve roubles, and there was
nothing offensive in what had been said; but, still, there was
the unpleasant feeling. He did not even feel a desire to go
"Foo, how horrid!" he said, standing still at a lamp-post.
It occurred to him that he did not regret the twelve roubles
because he got them for nothing. If he had been a working man he
would have known the value of every farthing, and would not have
been so careless whether he lost or won. And his good-fortune
had all, he reflected, come to him by chance, for nothing, and
really was as superfluous for him as medicine for the healthy.
If, like the vast majority of people, he had been harassed by
anxiety for his daily bread, had been struggling for existence,
if his back and chest had ached from work, then supper, a warm
snug home, and domestic happiness, would have been the
necessity, the compensation, the crown of his life; as it was,
all this had a strange, indefinite significance for him.
"Foo, how horrid!" he repeated, knowing perfectly well that
these reflections were in themselves a bad sign.
When he got home Masha was in bed: she was breathing evenly and
smiling, and was evidently sleeping with great enjoyment. Near
her the white cat lay curled up, purring. While Nikitin lit the
candle and lighted his cigarette, Masha woke up and greedily
drank a glass of water.
"I ate too many sweets," she said, and laughed. "Have you been
home?" she asked after a pause.
Nikitin knew already that Captain Polyansky, on whom Varya had
been building great hopes of late, was being transferred to one
of the western provinces, and was already making his farewell
visits in the town, and so it was depressing at his
"Varya looked in this evening," said Masha, sitting up. "She did
not say anything, but one could see from her face how wretched
she is, poor darling! I can't bear Polyansky. He is fat and
bloated, and when he walks or dances his cheeks shake. . . . He
is not a man I would choose. But, still, I did think he was a
"I think he is a decent person now," said Nikitin.
"Then why has he treated Varya so badly?"
"Why badly?" asked Nikitin, beginning to feel irritation against
the white cat, who was stretching and arching its back. "As far
as I know, he has made no proposal and has given her no
"Then why was he so often at the house? If he didn't mean to
marry her, he oughtn't to have come."
Nikitin put out the candle and got into bed. But he felt
disinclined to lie down and to sleep. He felt as though his head
were immense and empty as a barn, and that new, peculiar
thoughts were wandering about in it like tall shadows. He
thought that, apart from the soft light of the ikon lamp, that
beamed upon their quiet domestic happiness, that apart from this
little world in which he and this cat lived so peacefully and
happily, there was another world. . . . And he had a passionate,
poignant longing to be in that other world, to work himself at
some factory or big workshop, to address big audiences, to
write, to publish, to raise a stir, to exhaust himself, to
suffer. . . . He wanted something that would engross him till he
forgot himself, ceased to care for the personal happiness which
yielded him only sensations so monotonous. And suddenly there
rose vividly before his imagination the figure of Shebaldin with
his clean-shaven face, saying to him with horror: "You haven't
even read Lessing! You are quite behind the times! How you have
gone to seed!"
Masha woke up and again drank some water. He glanced at her
neck, at her plump shoulders and throat, and remembered the word
the brigadier-general had used in church -- "rose."
"Rose," he muttered, and laughed.
His laugh was answered by a sleepy growl from Mushka under the
bed: "Rrr . . . nga-nga-nga . . . !"
A heavy anger sank like a cold weight on his heart, and he felt
tempted to say something rude to Masha, and even to jump up and
hit her; his heart began throbbing.
"So then," he asked, restraining himself, "since I went to your
house, I was bound in duty to marry you?"
"Of course. You know that very well."
"That's nice." And a minute later he repeated: "That's nice."
To relieve the throbbing of his heart, and to avoid saying too
much, Nikitin went to his study and lay down on the sofa,
without a pillow; then he lay on the floor on the carpet.
"What nonsense it is!" he said to reassure himself. "You are a
teacher, you are working in the noblest of callings. . . . What
need have you of any other world? What rubbish!"
But almost immediately he told himself with conviction that he
was not a real teacher, but simply a government employ, as
commonplace and mediocre as the Czech who taught Greek. He had
never had a vocation for teaching, he knew nothing of the theory
of teaching, and never had been interested in the subject; he
did not know how to treat children; he did not understand the
significance of what he taught, and perhaps did not teach the
right things. Poor Ippolit Ippolititch had been frankly stupid,
and all the boys, as well as his colleagues, knew what he was
and what to expect from him; but he, Nikitin, like the Czech,
knew how to conceal his stupidity and cleverly deceived every
one by pretending that, thank God, his teaching was a success.
These new ideas frightened Nikitin; he rejected them, called
them stupid, and believed that all this was due to his nerves,
that he would laugh at himself.
And he did, in fact, by the morning laugh at himself and call
himself an old woman; but it was clear to him that his peace of
mind was lost, perhaps, for ever, and that in that little
two-story house happiness was henceforth impossible for him. He
realized that the illusion had evaporated, and that a new life
of unrest and clear sight was beginning which was incompatible
with peace and personal happiness.
Next day, which was Sunday, he was at the school chapel, and
there met his colleagues and the director. It seemed to him that
they were entirely preoccupied with concealing their ignorance
and discontent with life, and he, too, to conceal his
uneasiness, smiled affably and talked of trivialities. Then he
went to the station and saw the mail train come in and go out,
and it was agreeable to him to be alone and not to have to talk
to any one.
At home he found Varya and his father-in-law, who had come to
dinner. Varya's eyes were red with crying, and she complained of
a headache, while Shelestov ate a great deal, saying that young
men nowadays were unreliable, and that there was very little
gentlemanly feeling among them.
"It's loutishness!" he said. "I shall tell him so to his face:
'It's loutishness, sir,' I shall say."
Nikitin smiled affably and helped Masha to look after their
guests, but after dinner he went to his study and shut the door.
The March sun was shining brightly in at the windows and
shedding its warm rays on the table. It was only the twentieth
of the month, but already the cabmen were driving with wheels,
and the starlings were noisy in the garden. It was just the
weather in which Masha would come in, put one arm round his
neck, tell him the horses were saddled or the chaise was at the
door, and ask him what she should put on to keep warm. Spring
was beginning as exquisitely as last spring, and it promised the
same joys. . . . But Nikitin was thinking that it would be nice
to take a holiday and go to Moscow, and stay at his old lodgings
there. In the next room they were drinking coffee and talking of
Captain Polyansky, while he tried not to listen and wrote in his
diary: "Where am I, my God? I am surrounded by vulgarity and
vulgarity. Wearisome, insignificant people, pots of sour cream,
jugs of milk, cockroaches, stupid women. . . . There is nothing
more terrible, mortifying, and distressing than vulgarity. I
must escape from here, I must escape today, or I shall go out of
title: a more recent translator suggests "The Russian Master"
Count Nulin: Count Zero, after Pushkin's comic poem Count Nulin
Marie Godefroi: a famous circus bareback rider
Shtchedrin: M. E. Saltykov (1821-1889), satirist and novelist,
used the pseudonym Shchedrin
Dostoevsky: Fyodor M. Dostoevsky (1821-1881), the famous
Onyegin and then from Boris Godunov: Eugene Onegin, Pushkin's
novel in verse; Boris Godunov was an historical play by Pushkin
Lermontov: Mikhail Y. Lermontov (1814-1841) poet and novelist
The Woman who was a Sinner: a poem by Alexey K. Tolstoy
(1817-1875); amateurs recited it so often it became a cliche and
Chekhov later used the poem in his play The Cherry Orchard
Lessing: G. E. Lessing's 1769 treatise on drama was a central
text in dramatic theory
"not for nothing...hussar": inexact quote from Lermontov
Battle of Kalka: 1223 battle in which the Russians were defeated
by a Mongol-Tatar army
capes in Siberia: literally, "Cape Chukotskys," located opposite
the Bering Straits
Vyestnik Evropi: European Herald, a liberal magazine
viva voce: oral exams
Gogol: Nikolay V. Gogol (1809-1852) Russian writer
blessing of the water: annual Russian Orthodox Church ceremony
held on January 5
vint: a bridge-like card game
driving with wheels: as opposed to sleigh-runners in winter