A.P. Chekhov -
An Artist's Story
IT was six or seven years ago when I was
living in one of the districts of the province of T----, on the
estate of a young landowner called Byelokurov, who used to get
up very early, wear a peasant tunic, drink beer in the evenings,
and continually complain to me that he never met with sympathy
from any one. He lived in the lodge in the garden, and I in the
old seigniorial house, in a big room with columns, where there
was no furniture except a wide sofa on which I used to sleep,
and a table on which I used to lay out patience. There was
always, even in still weather, a droning noise in the old Amos
stoves, and in thunder-storms the whole house shook and seemed
to be cracking into pieces; and it was rather terrifying,
especially at night, when all the ten big windows were suddenly
lit up by lightning.
Condemned by destiny to perpetual idleness, I did absolutely
nothing. For hours together I gazed out of window at the sky, at
the birds, at the avenue, read everything that was brought me by
post, slept. Sometimes I went out of the house and wandered
about till late in the evening.
One day as I was returning home, I accidentally strayed into a
place I did not know. The sun was already sinking, and the
shades of evening lay across the flowering rye. Two rows of old,
closely planted, very tall fir-trees stood like two dense walls
forming a picturesque, gloomy avenue. I easily climbed over the
fence and walked along the avenue, slipping over the fir-needles
which lay two inches deep on the ground. It was still and dark,
and only here and there on the high tree-tops the vivid golden
light quivered and made rainbows in the spiders' webs. There was
a strong, almost stifling smell of resin. Then I turned into a
long avenue of limes. Here, too, all was desolation and age;
last year's leaves rusted mournfully under my feet and in the
twilight shadows lurked between the trees. From the old orchard
on the right came the faint, reluctant note of the golden
oriole, who must have been old too. But at last the limes ended.
I walked by an old white house of two storeys with a terrace,
and there suddenly opened before me a view of a courtyard, a
large pond with a bathing-house, a group of green willows, and a
village on the further bank, with a high, narrow belfry on which
there glittered a cross reflecting the setting sun.
For a moment it breathed upon me the fascination of something
near and very familiar, as though I had seen that landscape at
some time in my childhood.
At the white stone gates which led from the yard to the fields,
old-fashioned solid gates with lions on them, were standing two
girls. One of them, the elder, a slim, pale, very handsome girl
with a perfect haystack of chestnut hair and a little obstinate
mouth, had a severe expression and scarcely took notice of me,
while the other, who was still very young, not more than
seventeen or eighteen, and was also slim and pale, with a large
mouth and large eyes, looked at me with astonishment as I passed
by, said something in English, and was overcome with
embarrassment. And it seemed to me that these two charming
faces, too, had long been familiar to me. And I returned home
feeling as though I had had a delightful dream.
One morning soon afterwards, as Byelokurov and I were walking
near the house, a carriage drove unexpectedly into the yard,
rustling over the grass, and in it was sitting one of those
girls. It was the elder one. She had come to ask for
subscriptions for some villagers whose cottages had been burnt
down. Speaking with great earnestness and precision, and not
looking at us, she told us how many houses in the village of
Siyanovo had been burnt, how many men, women, and children were
left homeless, and what steps were proposed, to begin with, by
the Relief Committee, of which she was now a member. After
handing us the subscription list for our signatures, she put it
away and immediately began to take leave of us.
"You have quite forgotten us, Pyotr Petrovitch," she said to
Byelokurov as she shook hands with him. "Do come, and if
Monsieur N. (she mentioned my name) cares to make the
acquaintance of admirers of his work, and will come and see us,
mother and I will be delighted."
When she had gone Pyotr Petrovitch began to tell me about her.
The girl was, he said, of good family, and her name was Lidia
Voltchaninov, and the estate on which she lived with her mother
and sister, like the village on the other side of the pond, was
called Shelkovka. Her father had once held an important position
in Moscow, and had died with the rank of privy councillor.
Although they had ample means, the Voltchaninovs lived on their
estate summer and winter without going away. Lidia was a teacher
in the Zemstvo school in her own village, and received a salary
of twenty-five roubles a month. She spent nothing on herself but
her salary, and was proud of earning her own living.
"An interesting family," said Byelokurov. "Let us go over one
day. They will be delighted to see you."
One afternoon on a holiday we thought of the Voltchaninovs, and
went to Shelkovka to see them. They -- the mother and two
daughters -- were at home. The mother, Ekaterina Pavlovna, who
at one time had been handsome, but now, asthmatic, depressed,
vague, and over-feeble for her years, tried to entertain me with
conversation about painting. Having heard from her daughter that
I might come to Shelkovka, she had hurriedly recalled two or
three of my landscapes which she had seen in exhibitions in
Moscow, and now asked what I meant to express by them. Lidia, or
as they called her Lida, talked more to Byelokurov than to me.
Earnest and unsmiling, she asked him why he was not on the
Zemstvo, and why he had not attended any of its meetings.
"It's not right, Pyotr Petrovitch," she said reproachfully.
"It's not right. It's too bad."
"That's true, Lida -- that's true," the mother assented. "It
"Our whole district is in the hands of Balagin," Lida went on,
addressing me. "He is the chairman of the Zemstvo Board, and he
has distributed all the posts in the district among his nephews
and sons-in-law; and he does as he likes. He ought to be
opposed. The young men ought to make a strong party, but you see
what the young men among us are like. It's a shame, Pyotr
The younger sister, Genya, was silent while they were talking of
the Zemstvo. She took no part in serious conversation. She was
not looked upon as quite grown up by her family, and, like a
child, was always called by the nickname of Misuce, because that
was what she had called her English governess when she was a
child. She was all the time looking at me with curiosity, and
when I glanced at the photographs in the album, she explained to
me: "That's uncle . . . that's god-father," moving her finger
across the photograph. As she did so she touched me with her
shoulder like a child, and I had a close view of her delicate,
undeveloped chest, her slender shoulders, her plait, and her
thin little body tightly drawn in by her sash.
We played croquet and lawn tennis, we walked about the garden,
drank tea, and then sat a long time over supper. After the huge
empty room with columns, I felt, as it were, at home in this
small snug house where there were no oleographs on the walls and
where the servants were spoken to with civility. And everything
seemed to me young and pure, thanks to the presence of Lida and
Misuce, and there was an atmosphere of refinement over
everything. At supper Lida talked to Byelokurov again of the
Zemstvo, of Balagin, and of school libraries. She was an
energetic, genuine girl, with convictions, and it was
interesting to listen to her, though she talked a great deal and
in a loud voice -- perhaps because she was accustomed to talking
at school. On the other hand, Pyotr Petrovitch, who had retained
from his student days the habit of turning every conversation
into an argument, was tedious, flat, long-winded, and
unmistakably anxious to appear clever and advanced.
Gesticulating, he upset a sauce-boat with his sleeve, making a
huge pool on the tablecloth, but no one except me appeared to
It was dark and still as we went home.
"Good breeding is shown, not by not upsetting the sauce, but by
not noticing it when somebody else does," said Byelokurov, with
a sigh. "Yes, a splendid, intellectual family! I've dropped out
of all decent society; it's dreadful how I've dropped out of it!
It's all through work, work, work!"
He talked of how hard one had to work if one wanted to be a
model farmer. And I thought what a heavy, sluggish fellow he
was! Whenever he talked of anything serious he articulated "Er-er
with intense effort, and worked just as he talked -- slowly,
always late and behind-hand. I had little faith in his business
capacity if only from the fact that when I gave him letters to
post he carried them about in his pocket for weeks together.
"The hardest thing of all," he muttered as he walked beside me
-- "the hardest thing of all is that, work as one may, one meets
with no sympathy from any one. No sympathy!"