(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)
Aanton Chekhov, widely hailed as the supreme master of the short story, also wrote five works long enough to be called short novels–here brought together in one volume for the first time, in a masterly new translation by the award-winning translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
The Steppe–the most lyrical of the five–is an account of a nine-year-old boy’s frightening journey by wagon train across the steppe of southern Russia. The Duel sets two decadent figures–a fanatical rationalist and a man of literary sensibility–on a collision course that ends in a series of surprising reversals. In The Story of an Unknown Man, a political radical spying on an important official by serving as valet to his son gradually discovers that his own terminal illness has changed his long-held priorities in startling ways. Three Years recounts a complex series of ironies in the personal life of a rich but passive Moscow merchant. In My Life, a man renounces wealth and social position for a life of manual labor.
The resulting conflict between the moral simplicity of his ideals and the complex realities of human nature culminates in a brief apocalyptic vision that is unique in Chekhov’s work.
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The Story of a Journey
On an early July morning a battered, springless britzka--one of those antediluvian britzkas now driven in Russia only by merchants' agents, herdsmen, and poor priests--rolled out of the district town of N., in Z----province, and went thundering down the post road. It rattled and shrieked at the slightest movement, glumly seconded by the bucket tied to its rear--and from these sounds alone, and the pitiful leather tatters hanging from its shabby body, one could tell how decrepit it was and ready for the scrap heap.
In the britzka sat two residents of N.: the merchant Ivan Ivanych Kuzmichov, clean-shaven, in spectacles and a straw hat, looking more like an official than a merchant; and the other, Father Khristofor Siriysky, rector of the church of St. Nicholas in N., a small, long-haired old man in a gray canvas caftan, a broad-brimmed top hat, and a colorfully embroidered belt. The first was thinking intently about something and kept tossing his head to drive away drowsiness; on his face a habitual, businesslike dryness struggled with the good cheer of a man who has just bid farewell to his family and had a stiff drink; the second gazed at God's world with moist, astonished little eyes and smiled so broadly that his smile even seemed to reach his hat brim; his face was red and had a chilled look. Both of them, Father Khristofor as well as Kuzmichov, were on their way now to sell wool. Taking leave of their households, they had just had a filling snack of doughnuts with sour cream and, despite the early hour, had drunk a little . . . They were both in excellent spirits.
Besides the two men just described and the coachman Deniska, who tirelessly whipped up the pair of frisky bay horses, there was one more passenger in the britzka--a boy of about nine whose face was dark with tan and stained with tears. This was Egorushka, Kuzmichov's nephew. With his uncle's permission and Father Khristofor's blessing, he was going somewhere to enroll in school. His mama, Olga Ivanovna, widow of a collegiate secretary1 and Kuzmichov's sister, who liked educated people and wellborn society, had entreated her brother, who was going to sell wool, to take Egorushka with him and enroll him in school; and now the boy, not knowing where or why he was going, was sitting on the box beside Deniska, holding on to his elbow so as not to fall off, and bobbing up and down like a kettle on the stove. The quick pace made his red shirt balloon on his back, and his new coachman's hat with a peacock feather kept slipping down on his neck. He felt himself an unhappy person in the highest degree and wanted to cry.
When the britzka drove past the prison, Egorushka looked at the sentries quietly pacing by the high white wall, at the small barred windows, at the cross gleaming on the roof, and remembered how, a week ago, on the day of the Kazan Mother of God,2 he had gone with his mama to the prison church for the feast; and earlier still, for Easter, he had gone to the prison with the cook Liudmila and Deniska and brought kulichi,3 eggs, pies, and roasted beef; the prisoners had thanked them and crossed themselves, and one of them had given Egorushka some tin shirt studs of his own making.
The boy peered at the familiar places, and the hateful britzka raced past and left it all behind. After the prison flashed the black, sooty smithies, after them the cozy green cemetery surrounded by a stone wall; the white crosses and tombstones hiding among the green of the cherry trees and showing like white blotches from a distance, peeped merrily from behind the wall. Egorushka remembered that when the cherry trees were in bloom, these white spots blended with the blossoms into a white sea; and when the cherries were ripe, the white tombstones and crosses were strewn with blood-red spots. Behind the wall, under the cherries, Egorushka's father and his grandmother Zinaida Danilovna slept day and night. When the grandmother died, they laid her in a long, narrow coffin and covered her eyes, which refused to close, with two five-kopeck pieces. Before her death she had been alive and had brought soft poppy-seed bagels from the market, but now she sleeps and sleeps . . .
And beyond the cemetery the brickworks smoked. Thick black smoke came in big puffs from under the long, thatched roofs flattened to the ground, and lazily rose upwards. The sky above the brickworks and cemetery was swarthy, and big shadows from the puffs of smoke crept over the fields and across the road. In the smoke near the roofs moved people and horses covered with red dust . . .
Beyond the brickworks the town ended and the fields began. Egorushka turned to look at the town for the last time, pressed his face against Deniska's elbow, and wept bitterly . . .
"So you're not done crying, crybaby!" said Kuzmichov. "Mama's boy, sniveling again! If you don't want to go, stay then. Nobody's forcing you!"
"Never mind, never mind, Egor old boy, never mind . . ." Father Khristofor murmured quickly. "Never mind, old boy . . . Call upon God . . . It's nothing bad you're going to, but something good. Learning is light, as they say, and ignorance is darkness . . . It's truly so."
"You want to turn back?" asked Kuzmichov.
"Ye . . . yes . . ." answered Egorushka with a sob.
"And you should. Anyhow, there's no point in going, it's a long way for nothing."
"Never mind, never mind, old boy . . ." Father Khristofor went on. "Call upon God . . . Lomonosov traveled the same way with fishermen, yet from him came a man for all Europe. Intelligence, received with faith, yields fruit that is pleasing to God. How does the prayer go? 'For the glory of the Creator, for the comfort of our parents, for the benefit of the Church and the fatherland' . . . That's it."
"Benefits vary . . ." said Kuzmichov, lighting up a cheap cigar. "There are some that study for twenty years and nothing comes of it."
"Some benefit from learning, but some just have their brains addled. My sister's a woman of no understanding, tries to have it all in a wellborn way, and wants to turn Egorka into a scholar, and she doesn't understand that with my affairs I could make Egorka happy forever. I explain this to you because, if everybody becomes scholars and gentlemen, there'll be nobody to trade or sow grain. We'll all starve to death."
"But if everybody trades and sows grain, then nobody will comprehend learning."
And, thinking that they had both said something convincing and weighty, Kuzmichov and Father Khristofor put on serious faces and coughed simultaneously. Deniska, who was listening to their conversation and understood nothing, tossed his head and, rising a little, whipped up the two bays. Silence ensued.
Meanwhile, before the eyes of the travelers there now spread a wide, endless plain cut across by a chain of hills. Crowding and peeking from behind each other, these hills merge into an elevation that stretches to the right from the road all the way to the horizon and disappears in the purple distance; you go on and on and there is no way to tell where it begins and where it ends . . . The sun has already peeped out from behind the town and quietly, without fuss, set about its work. At first, far ahead, where the sky meets the earth, near the barrows and a windmill that, from afar, looks like a little man waving his arms, a broad, bright yellow strip crept over the ground; a moment later the same sort of strip lit up somewhat closer, crept to the right, and enveloped the hills; something warm touched Egorushka's back, a strip of light, sneaking up from behind, darted across the britzka and the horses, raced to meet the other strips, and suddenly the whole wide steppe shook off the half-shade of morning, smiled, and sparkled with dew.
Mowed rye, tall weeds, milkwort, wild hemp--all of it brown from the heat, reddish and half dead, now washed by the dew and caressed by the sun--were reviving to flower again. Martins skimmed over the road with merry cries, gophers called to each other in the grass, somewhere far to the left peewits wept. A covey of partridges, frightened by the britzka, fluttered up and, with its soft "trrr," flew off towards the hills. Grasshoppers, crickets, capricorn beetles, mole crickets struck up their monotonous chirring music in the grass.
But a little time passed, the dew evaporated, the air congealed, and the deceived steppe assumed its dismal July look. The grass wilted, life stood still. The sunburnt hills, brown-green, purple in the distance, with their peaceful, shadowy tones, the plain with its distant mistiness, and above them the overturned sky, which, in the steppe, where there are no forests or high mountains, seems terribly deep and transparent, now looked endless, transfixed with anguish . . .
How stifling and dismal! The britzka runs on, but Egorushka sees one and the same thing--the sky, the plain, the hills . . . The music in the grass has grown still. The martins have flown away, there are no partridges to be seen. Rooks flit over the faded grass, having nothing else to do; they all look the same and make the steppe still more monotonous.
A kite flies just above the ground, smoothly flapping its wings, and suddenly stops in the air, as if pondering life's boredom, then shakes its wings and sweeps away across the steppe like an arrow, and there is no telling why it flies and what it wants. And in the distance the windmill beats its wings . . .
For the sake of diversity, a white skull or a boulder flashes among the weeds; a gray stone idol or a parched willow with a blue roller on its topmost branch rises up for a moment, a gopher scampers across the road, and--again weeds, hills, rooks run past your eyes . . .
Then, thank God, a cart laden with sheaves comes the opposite way. On the very top lies a peasant girl. Sleepy, exhausted by the heat, she raises her head and looks at the passersby. Deniska gapes at her, the bays stretch their muzzles out to the sheaves, the britzka, shrieking, kisses the cart, and prickly ears of wheat brush like a besom over Father Khristofor's top hat.
"Running people down, eh, pudgy!" shouts Deniska. "See, her mug's all swollen like a bee stung it!"
The girl smiles sleepily, moves her lips, and lies down again . . . But now a solitary poplar appears on a hill; who planted it and why it is here--God only knows. It is hard to tear your eyes from its slender figure and green garments. Is the handsome fellow happy? Heat in summer, frost and blizzards in winter, terrible autumn nights when you see only darkness and hear nothing but the wayward, furiously howling wind, and above all--you are alone, alone your whole life . . . Beyond the poplar, fields of wheat stretch in a bright yellow carpet from the top of the hill right down to the road. On the hill the grain has already been cut and gathered into stacks, but below they are still mowing . . . Six mowers stand in a row and swing their scythes, and the scythes flash merrily and in rhythm, all together making a sound like "vzzhi, vzzhi!" By the movements of the women binding the sheaves, by the faces of the mowers, by the gleaming of the scythes, you can see that the heat is burning and stifling. A black dog, its tongue hanging out, comes running from the mowers to meet the britzka, probably intending to bark, but stops halfway and gazes indifferently at Deniska, who threatens it with his whip: it is too hot to bark! One woman straightens up and, pressing both hands to her weary back, follows Egorushka's red shirt with her eyes. The red color may have pleased her, or she may have been remembering her own children, but she stands for a long time motionless and looks after him . . .
But now the wheat, too, has flashed by. Again the scorched plain, the sunburnt hills, the torrid sky stretch out, again a kite skims over the ground. The windmill beats its wings in the distance, as before, and still looks like a little man waving his arms. You get sick of looking at it, and it seems you will never reach it, that it is running away from the britzka.
Father Khristofor and Kuzmichov were silent. Deniska kept whipping up the bays and making little cries, and Egorushka no longer wept but gazed indifferently on all sides. The heat and the boredom of the steppe wearied him. It seemed to him that he had already been riding and bobbing about for a long time, that the sun had already been baking his back for a long time. They had not yet gone ten miles, but he was already thinking: "Time for a rest!" The good cheer gradually left his uncle's face, and only the businesslike dryness remained, and to a gaunt, clean-shaven face, especially when it is in spectacles, when its nose and temples are covered with dust, this dryness lends an implacable, inquisitorial expression. Father Khristofor, however, went on gazing in astonishment at God's world and smiled. He was silently thinking of something good and cheerful, and a kindly, good-natured smile congealed on his face. It seemed that the good, cheerful thought also congealed in his brain from the heat . . .
"What do you say, Deniska, will we catch up with the wagon train today?" asked Kuzmichov.
Deniska glanced at the sky, rose a little, whipped up the horses, and only then replied:
"By nightfall, God willing."
The barking of dogs was heard. Some six huge steppe sheepdogs suddenly rushed at the britzka, as if leaping from ambush, with a fierce, howling barking. Extraordinarily vicious, with shaggy, spiderlike muzzles, their eyes red with malice, they all surrounded the britzka and, shoving each other jealously, set up a hoarse growling. Their hatred was passionate, and they seemed ready to tear to pieces the horses, and the britzka, and the people . . . Deniska, who liked teasing and whipping, was glad of the opportunity and, giving his face an expression of malicious glee, bent over and lashed one of the sheepdogs with his whip. The dogs growled still more, the horses bolted; and Egorushka, barely clinging to the box, looked at the dogs' eyes and teeth and understood that if he were to fall off, he would instantly be torn to pieces, but he felt no fear and looked on with the same malicious glee as Deniska, regretting that he had no whip in his hands.
The britzka overtook a flock of sheep.
"Stop!" cried Kuzmichov. "Hold up! Whoa . . ."
Table of ContentsIntroduction
The Story of an Unknown Man